The Power of Strength: What I Learned Through My Teacher’s Guild Passion Project

Samantha McMillan
Sep 10, 2018 · 7 min read

I was chosen to participate in IDEO’s Teachers Guild fellowship to design an innovative solution for my school community and share it with other educators. The goal of the fellowship was to demonstrate that teachers are designers and have the power to generate transformative solutions to problems. IDEO is known for solving problems with design thinking and our ten person cohort was given training in this process. We had virtual and in-person meetings with The Teachers Guild, receiving coaching, mentoring and support throughout the school year. Our final designs were called “Passion Projects” and in this article I will outline my project and what my students and I learned from the process.

(My amazing cohort! Check them out on Twitter!) (back row) @capaldi_phil @mrnavas @DrDuncanHistory @TheresaShadrix @NapolielloSarah (front row) @msbartellsclass @YungTiffanie @LisaBridie @GHSTEAMchic

The inspiration for my Passion Project came from asking my students which superpower they would like to have. Responses ranged from “I want an increase in speed — both physically and mentally,” to “I want to be able to read people — like, when they don’t talk, I want to figure out why they act the way they do,” and “I want more courage to try new things that I’m too scared to do,” and finally, “I want to be able to read between the lines, to feel what other people are feeling but not saying.” I was surprised to hear that students requested realistic superpowers that they could easily integrate into their lives. This got me thinking on how I could engage students to identify their existing superpowers (i.e. strengths) and how that could move them closer to their goals.

I based my Passion Project on the question: “How might we encourage students to identify their own strengths and apply strengths in a meaningful way?” I introduced this topic at the beginning of the school year through some activities to get students thinking about their strengths. First, students created their own personal brand in three words. A personal brand is what you are known for and how people experience you. Identifying a personal brand helps students reflect on how others may see them. Next, we chose a few activities from Team Works (an amazing team-building curriculum) to help build community and learn more about each other (Note: All of the Team Works activities are great but the ones I felt most relevant to my unit were activities from Theme 4: Connecting Across Cultures and Theme 5: How to Get the Best Out of a Team.) Later in the school year, students completed three investigative units that would help them determine their ‘Learning’, ‘Activity’, and ‘Relationship’ strengths. Finally, students applied their strengths through a Passion Project of their choice.

Students worked on their Passion Projects for three weeks. Similar to Genius Hour or 20% Project, students pursued an individual creative interest (building something, creating original art, designing an app, etc.). At the end, students were asked to prepare a visual aid and oral presentation for a ‘Student Showcase’ where students actively engaged a younger audience in their creative journey. My 8th graders enjoyed being able to hang out with friends, showcase their work, and speak to an audience. One student told me that time flew by during the Showcase!

After completing the investigative units and our Passion Projects, my students and I had the following takeaways:

Strengths energize you, they are not just something you are good at. Many of my students had the misconception that their strengths are things they excel at, but I emphasized that this is only partly true. To truly determine whether something is a strength, you need to reflect on how you feel as you complete the activity or task. Does it energize you? Can you be motivated to do it again? If you excel at an activity but it does not leave you feeling invigorated, that is a sign it is not a strength.

We show different strengths in different areas. Much of the research for my Teacher’s Guild Passion Project came from the book, “Your Child’s Strengths” by Jenifer Fox. It is a great resource for educators and parents that want activities to try with children of all ages. In the book, Fox states that we have strengths in three different areas: activity, relationships, and learning . Activity strengths are tasks that you excel at that make you feel good. Relationship strengths are tasks you do for people that make you feel strong about the relationship. Learning strengths are the best ways and environments we learn in.

What makes your strengths your strengths? To validate what you claim to be your strength, you must complete investigative work. Students broke down simple, everyday tasks (cooking, shopping for groceries, chores, etc.) into parts or steps to identify which tasks energized or depleted them. Self-reflecting helped students see the origins of their strengths.

(Student example of a finished Strength Profile)

Strengths engage talents and become skills. Students are more likely to repeat the activities that relate to their strengths and eventually develop them into a skill or talent. After they have identified strengths, it is up to the students to continue developing until they become a more permanent part of their lives. The idea that personal growth can happen outside of school can be seen in the rise of microlearning, digital badges, and other technology tools that promote self-paced learning. Students who can identify personal strengths and engage them early may have an advantage when it comes to applying talents and skills.

Knowing strengths is just as important as knowing weaknesses. A student response to a survey question about how to improve this unit next year was profound, “I don’t think we should only focus on strengths, but also our weaknesses. Knowing our weaknesses will allow us to avoid taking on more than we can handle, it would also help deflate the egos of those who are arrogant.” This incredibly insightful response was a moment of realization for me. Identifying strengths is only valuable if we are also given the time to reflect on our weaknesses, including the weaknesses that lie within our strengths.

Talk it Out. One thing I would do differently next time is build in more time to share insights with a partner or group. Feedback from the people who are closest to you or who work with you on a regular basis, can be valuable in providing insights.

Find the right word. I found that many of my students did not know how to describe their strengths. One of the activities asked students to describe a task that energized them in one word. After reviewing their responses, it was apparent that they needed more support. Their one descriptive word was either too general (i.e. deciding) or too specific (i.e. drawing). As a result, I created this word bank to help students choose a word that best described their strength. After sharing the word bank, students were able to continue more smoothly.

(A word bank my students and I created to help identify specific strengths.)

Take a pause. Reflection is important, our strengths may change over time and finding strengths is personal and requires effort. There is no one test or questionnaire that will tell you what your strengths are. You determine strengths through asking questions as you complete tasks and by noticing how you feel doing certain things. Possible questions you could ask yourself to further determine strengths: What was the most successful project I ever tackled and what made it successful? What was the most important team role I ever fulfilled and why? When faced with an overwhelming obstacle, what is my go-to skill to overcome it? What are the strengths that others acknowledge in me? I would love to see students reflect on this project in years to come. My goal is to create a survey to send former students in high school to see if their strengths have changed or remained the same.

(Presenting my final Passion Project to my cohort)

Overall, I think my students got a lot out of this project, which was the central aim. I would make a few changes next year, such as adding more time for the Passion Project, transforming some of the activities with Nearpod, Go Formative, or FlipGrid to make them more engaging, and building in more time to talk. This experience taught me that the design thinking process can be applied to a wide range of problems. My cohort shared some inspiring Passion Projects that demonstrated this in creative ways. For instance, Tiffanie Harrison designed the Elevation Framework, a way to tackle equity and ensure student voices are heard. Phil Capaldi designed the Hallway Buddy: a small, interactive mascot that lives in the hallway and builds school culture. Lisa Bridie Parish designed Civic Science, a year-long project empowering students to develop solutions for local environmental issues. The insights collected from our experiences shows that educators can make lasting impact in any context.

Special thanks to my co-worker, friend, and mentor, Mariana Garcia (@MarianaGSerrato), for creating and sharing some of the resources I used for this project.

Originally published at on September 10, 2018.

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