Guest Blog

Passion Based Learning: Start with the why

I recently sat down with Jess Kuemmerlin, author of The Leap Year who illustrates how to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be. He also is a big fan of PaBL. He explains what PaBL in this interview.

What is PaBL?

PaBL stands for Passion Based Learning. It is a process I have been experimenting with my students for the past 5 years and it spans two continents and three different international schools.

The inspiration came when I actually read the book “Drive” by Daniel Pink on a beach in Thailand.

He talks about the idea of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation in his book, and the latter was foreign to me at the time.

I remember sitting there and thinking how I was teaching my kids (totally extrinsic) and was inspired to go back and find a way to foster intrinsic motivation in the curriculum.

It is crazy to think how it started that first year, but the process and student generated work has grown exponentially!

How do you incorporate PaBL into a school curriculum?

First you make it a non-negotiable. I would balance one sit down assessment and the PaBL as the two major cumulative assessments for the year.

I actually saved the PaBL for the second semester as it gives students a whole year to find curriculum interests, where they can connect to their passions.

Second, it works with the current curriculum and is not an add on. This is essential, as you push students to show mastery of the current curriculum through the medium of their passions and it is not another thing added for the teacher to cover.

Lastly, it is inquiry and project based. Inquiry is integral part of the process as students have to identify their passions (which is one of the most challenging aspects of the PaBL) and then connect it to their current learning. This requires research, evaluation, and reflection. Additionally, the PaBL is project based as students gain knowledge through the process of connecting their passions to their learning. It is quite complex and abstract, yet so rewarding when you see the students’ products.

In your opinion. What drives people to pursue actions passionately?

Man...I can speak days on this, but it is part of our DNA.

Think about it, we have built cities that can fly (eat, sleep, and entertained in the air).

Put humans on the moon!

Created cures for deadly diseases.

Although, it takes guidance on how to identify your passions and then follow them, everyone has this innate ability!

That is right, everyone!

How can younger students in lower grades take on PaBL?

This is a great question and I am planning on meeting with some Kinder and other ES teachers to see how we can scaffold PaBL into the younger years.

PaBL first requires autonomy and younger students are not aware what free choice is exactly, but can be taught how to choose based on their interests.

I think the most important, is the guidance we can give them on how to follow through in what they choose, so they can get a true sense if an interest can become a passion later on in life.

What are the bigger obstacles you’ve faced when working with students?

This is easy.

Every year I am told by 99% of the class that

“I don’t know what I am passionate about?”

Literally,, they have no idea and how can we blame them when we prescribe so many things in our classes today (write this report with x, y, and make sure z is this way).

It is the biggest hurdle, but it is quite amazing once they get past this initial roadblock and create amazing connections never thought possible.

Tell us about your book.

The Leap Year Process is the book I have been writing and working to self-publish for the last two years (Actually, now that I think about it, I have been subconsciously writing it for many more years).

It is a guide on how to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be in the face of everyday challenges.

Think of it as you “Ultimate Success Roadmap.”

I wrote this book, as I felt the gap (literally) from where I was and where I wanted to be keep growing farther and farther away.

Thus, I set a mission to write a book about the mechanics of how someone can do just that in the face of being a partner, parent, buy groceries, run errands, and the other endless tasks we do on a daily basis.

Of course one of the main themes of the books centers around you identifying your passion (actually found a way to do this quite easily) and then taking the steps to actualize it on a consistent basis!

Look for it to come out in December 2017!

If you can sum up PaBL in one sentence, what would that be?


It prepares students to succeed and thrive in an ever changing world!

Jess Kuemmerlin is an Innovation Coach at Shekou International School, in Shenzhen, China. Follow him on Twitter @jesskuemmerlin and look out for his book The Leap Year due to come out this December and will be available via Amazon.

Genius Hour: An Update

This past year was my second year exploring genius hour. Because I was able to start it from the beginning of the year, I was able to fit two rounds of genius hour into our year. The first round ran much like the set up from year one; students independently researched something they were passionate about and presented their projects to the class.

I learned something new from each of their presentations and began getting ready to implement another round of the same thing. I then had a thought - why do more of the same? Genius hour is about helping students grow into passionate and voracious learners and I wanted to try something different.

The students were paired up and presented with a challenge: investigate a problem in the world and develop a solution. I asked them to think big - I didn't want problems like "they don't serve ice cream in the cafeteria" or "I don't have a PS4." The rose to the occasion, choosing topics including bullying, littering, world hunger, homelessness, truancy, endangered species, epidemic diseases, and smoking. Not a short order to research and solve, especially for fourth graders.

To be honest, I was a little apprehensive. Some of these topics could become very controversial, but there wasn't a single time this became an issue. The students honed in on their chosen problems and I saw many shocked faces when they learned something new. To help them provide some structure, I suggested a basic framework: research facts about the problem to consolidate into an easily understood summary, propose a meaningful solution, and provide a step-by-step framework to implement this solution.

Many of them found a number of good and interesting facts, and some found some conflicting facts. Occasionally, we found it was a simple mistake on the students' parts (typing billion instead of million,) but sometimes different websites gave different information. We would discuss how to choose the best information, including providing a range of data.

One thing I noticed was that their slide design skills sometimes need work. Some students were spot on: good amount of slides, limited words, compelling pictures (some students found the magic of gifs,) and even some text animation. Other presentations were too long or overcrowded with text. This is a skill that adults struggle with (myself included,) but it's such a valuable skill for life. In the future, we'll take more time to discuss what makes good slide design and develop general guidelines to follow, in addition to continued work on public speaking and presenting.

Many of their solutions revolved around raising awareness or money for their problems. The littering group wanted to put up more signs and recycling bins, the smoking group wanted to teach others how to stand up against smoking, the disease groups suggested more research and funding for vaccines, and many groups wanted to raise money to donate to help endangered species, the homeless, or other groups. While none of these ideas could be designated as moonshot solutions, they were mostly realistic and could be brought to fruition by the students (with help from adults.) You can check out their projects in these videos: Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.

Going forward, I want to build upon this idea. I do not want to begin with a round of studying something they are passionate about; I want to jump right into problem solving. After getting a second chance to learn from one of my Google Certified Innovator coaches Kevin Brookhouser at the North Carolina GAFE Summit, I want to shift genius hour into 20time. As he describes it, his students investigate a "wicked problem" for an entire year to understand and overcome it. I want my students' 20time projects to last an entire year (rather than a few weeks) and to solve their "wicked problems." I love the idea of a bad idea factory, which sometimes good ideas can stem from. I also want a concrete item or event to come out of this project, rather than just ideas for change. I want students to feel empowered and to be change agents, even in fourth grade. Kevin's got a great book called The 20Time Project, which I am extremely excited to dive into, and you can check it out here.

Is this too much to expect from fourth graders? Some may say so, but I don't agree. I believe if students are held to high standards, they will rise to meet them. They will obviously need support from parents and me, but I know they can do it. You can expect updates on this project throughout the year and I am extremely excited for what the students create to solve their "wicked problems!"

Justin Birckbichler is a 4th grade teacher in Fredericksburg, VA. Google Certified Innovator & Trainer. Testicular cancer survivor. Follow his journey at and catch him on his regular blog at and follow him on twitter at @Mr_B_Teacher

Passion Wins

Passion, it drives us in everything we do (especially the things we do well!) Over the years educators have worked hard to figure out how to engage students in the classroom. I don’t want to take the credit away from all the educators over the years who’ve worked so hard but it might just be the case that the business world deserves some of the credit for finding the best solution. Way back in 1948, Spencer Silver at 3M, a major American corporation, came up with the idea of “15 percent time”. This was paid time given over to employees “to chase rainbows and hatch their own ideas.” For years “15 percent time” was little known, until a man named Art Fry took his idea for an adhesive bookmark and created the product we all know and love today, the “Post-It Note”. Talk about a success story!

As time went on, other corporations took up the idea and began to implement similar programs to give their employees a chance to follow their passions and pursue creative projects. Google implemented “20 Time”, upping the ante from 3M’s “15 percent time”. Gmail is perhaps the most famous product created from Google’s “20 Time” but many other creations have made an impact as well: Google News, AdSense, Google Maps, Google Earth and Google Talk just to name a few that you may have heard of before. The opportunity to take paid time to work on something you’re passionate about sounds like a pretty awesome concept and, in fact, it has proven to be a very helpful recruiting tool for companies who’ve implemented such plans.

These are awesome ideas for corporations but what about schools? Many teachers are still working hard to engage their kids in creative ways and it’s working! Conversely, there are many teachers who continue to work at engaging their classes with little success. Then there’s a group of teachers (and even whole schools) who’ve taken the concept of “20 Time” and found a way to apply it to the student experience. Here at AC our Elementary School (grades 3-5) completely revamped the “homework policy” from lots of worksheets and stressful tasks to one of no “homework” with the option for kids to pursue “Inspiration Projects” at home. These kids have had the regular (3-4 times already this year) opportunity to show off their Inspiration Projects at a showcase day, the final showcase happens June 9th…come check it out!! There is no question that when our kids dive into these projects they are 100% engaged and committed to their work, they are not only inspired but they are passionate!

My real inspiration for writing this week was not the Lower School but rather the work of our High School English department and their students. On Monday night we had a beautiful night of presentations as students from 10th, 11th, and 12th grades presented their year-long efforts on their “20 Time” projects. All year long our English teachers have turned over the time from one out of every six class periods for kids to work on their “20 Time” projects. This project was guided and not just a free-for-all for our students, maybe some day This year, students had to follow a six step process including these steps: Topic proposal, research, mentorship (they needed to find a mentor to guide them), elevator pitch (selling their idea in 60 seconds or less), implement the project and reflect, and finally present. For many kids it was a long journey but for all kids it was enlightening and rewarding.

As this was the first year that our High School students participated in a “20 Time” project there was bound to be a mixed bag of results. There were failures, which were great! Students may have learned more from their mis-steps and errors than from anything. There were also some tremendous successes, which also came with their fair share of hiccups and bumps in the road. Overall the process and journey were the real rewards for most of these kids. Be that as it may, I wanted to share some of the final products. I’ve included below the final products from a selection of our students, including their “blurb” from the presentation program as well as links to their final products. I chose these specific kids for two reasons: First, they had an actual digital product I could share. Secondly, they were the kids who granted me permission to share with the whole wide world (most were very excited and proud to share!) As I’ve alluded to, these projects were totally inspired and clearly showed the passion these students had for the topics they chose. There is a wide range here in both topics as well as quality. I’ll let you be the judge of the results but no matter what you think of the final product, remember that the journey was the true learning experience for these kids!!


Rosie – Music in Pieces:

From songwriting to the recording process, Rosie wanted to create music and understand what it takes to make a finished song. Growing up with music as a major influence in her life, Rosie taught herself both piano and guitar and figured it was only a matter of time before her own songs came to life. Her passion for music and the lessons she learned along the way, as well as where the project will keep going, are what she takes from this experience. And, of course, a finished song!

Paula – Cooking with Paula!:

In her 20Time Project, Paula decided to explore the world of professional baking. With the help of a family friend who owns a bakery, Paula created her own pastries to be sold in the store, and got to experience the gratification of seeing her work generate a profit. Her experience was documented on her website.

**Note: Paula’s website is overall very impressive, she has a better profile than most adults I’ve seen!

Cole – Your Advocate for Religious Understanding:

Many people have heard false misconceptions on world religions given by society, such as “Muslims are terrorists” and that “Jews are rich and greedy.” Cole, as a Mormon, has faced many misconceptions about his own religion and has seen other people have to live in a world of religious intolerance. In his 20Time project, he set out to fix this problem on a small scale by creating a blog that shares the truth about these faiths. You can view his blog and see how he writes about the truth behind the Mormon church and its misconceptions and features other world religions to help bring the world to be more religiously understanding, the key to tolerance.

Saleem and Luis – Feel the Music:

In relation to the flourishing industry that EDM/House music has become in the last lustrum, Saleem and Luis with their 20Time Project set out to explore this vast and exciting world of electronic music. They created their own mixes in hope of shining a light onto this growing industry and the high involvement it has with our upcoming generation.

Suzy – Cooking Healthy Food

For her 20Time Project, Suzy chose to dedicate herself to the challenge of creating simple, healthy meals for one person, in an attempt to reduce individual food waste. For this, she created a website to help provide the nutritional value of the meals she was cooking, as well as posted videos to teach you how to make them.

Nour – Khamisetas:

Ever since she could hold a pencil, Nour was in love with creating art. Now, at the age of sixteen, she believes it is time to share her art with the world. Throughout this experience she has explored the world of online merchandising and other ways to implement her art into products (such as t-shirts). In Nour’s 20Time presentation, she will reveal the struggles and achievements encountered in her artistic journey. Visit Nour’s Red Bubble page her to see the merchandise available.

Junilly and Valeria – It’s Time to Cook!:

Bringing exquisite platters from the most famous regions in Brazil and savory dishes from the heart of Venezuela, Junilly and Valeria are going to put it all on the table and display their culture and passion for cooking – and eating – on their own Instagram account dedicated for these recipes. In their 20Time Project, these dedicated girls posted the recipes, in their native languages and in English, of their favorite dishes.

Martin – Quito Documentary:

In his 20Time Project, Martin, being a Quiteño citizen, wanted to illuminate people about his city and all of the people and sceneries that are present within it For his project, he set out to film in this beautiful city and make a short documentary about it. He prepared for the execution of his movie by practicing in school and investigating about movie making. Martin finalized his project by creating a stunning movie with Quito’s most beautiful views and scenery. He didn’t want to tell a story, or inform people about the city, but capture the essence of the city.

Bret Olson is an Associate Principal at Academia Cotopaxi, Ecuador. Follow him on Twitter @The1sWhoDo and make sure to read his blog as well at