Tag Archives: passion

Get Off the Path!

“Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths.”

Neil Gaiman in The Ocean at the End of the Lane


What are your paths? Let me name a few that I see in education:

  • Curriculum
  • Testing and test prep
  • Standards
  • Textbooks
  • Lesson plans
  • Daily objectives
  • Common assessments
  • District pacing guides
  • Siloed subjects
  • Grade level expectations

Not saying that these are all horrible things that should totally be eliminated (although I could make a strong argument for many of them), but I think they fit Gaiman’s analogy in that adults are so locked into them. Not only are we “content to walk the same way”, but we freak out a bit inside if we are not on pace and on track. We are ready to scold kids to “get back on the path!” as soon as they venture sideways.

How much time and energy do we spend making sure that we meet all of the adult expectations of our classroom vs. meeting the needs of the children in front of us?

Now I realize that these two things are not mutually exclusive. All of the things in the list were designed with the intention of assuring high quality education for all students. But learning must be fluid and personalized for the students in front of us. There is no one golden path that leads all children to learning nirvana. Adult expectations vs. children’s needs: What is our highest priority?


Covid-19 blew up the path. Remote learning forced everyone to adapt virtually every aspect of their class. It was not done in a thoughtful approach, but out of traumatic necessity. This summer gives space to reflect. We know that online learning worked great for some kids, was pointless hoop jumping for others, and for some of our most needy students was a total failure. But if we are honest, are those results much different than in a typical classroom?

Why do children leave the path? Because they see something interesting.

Isn’t that what learning is? Pursuing knowledge because we are fascinated by it. Sometimes the path is boring. Oftentimes the students have no idea where the path is going (no, writing the objective on the board doesn’t address this). Usually there are other routes to get to the same place other than the sanctioned path.

The Neil Gaiman quote reminded me of the long essay by Carol Black, A Thousand Rivers (a water theme connection?). Black argues for a return to holistic learning based on the community model of indigenous peoples. “Any Cree parent knows that you can tell when a child is ready for something because he will begin to ask questions about it. You can’t control the timing of this, and there is no reason to.”

All humans are natural learners, but schools are often so artificial.


Personally, I don’t believe that any child is lazy or lacks passion. They are just interested in different things than what is typically emphasized in schools. Kids are not interested in being “talked at.” So many times, I have seen the shift from apathy to enthusiasm, when students start talking about what they are doing outside of school. It may be sports, theatre, a club, or a hobby. They are motivated and work very hard at things that they care about. It is our job to connect their passions to learning vital skills needed in society. The first step in doing so, is to take a step back from mandated curriculum and make learning more open-ended and organic.

The opportunity before us is to reconsider schooling. The pressure of the tests was temporarily (but hopefully longer) removed. While I am a firm believer that schools alone can not fix all of societies ills, we need to do better to support all learners. For the disengaged children, what better place to start than with projects centered around them?

We need what Laureen Adams calls a “radical pedagogy of love.” This doesn’t mean that we are Kumbaya around the campfire all of the time. It does mean that we attend to the Social and Emotional well being of all of our students. I think we forget how radical love is.

Love is telling the whole truth about history including marginalized groups and oppressed peoples. Love is admitting when we are wrong as individuals or as a society. Love is making sure all kids have strong thinking skills, high reading levels, and computational fluency. Love is not soft. Love is demanding effort and excellence because we have caring relationships with kids. Love is showing students all that they can be.

Remote learning was an opportunity for children to explore their passions this spring. How can we continue to build our classes around child-centered practices? What about the kids who never engaged online? How can we create learning experiences that invite them into learning?

It’s time to let students lead us off of the path…

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.

Michael Kaechele

October 4, 2018

This is the fourth post in a series where I flesh out why the ideal traits of a PBL teacher are important. Check out the links to the rest of the series below the post.


It’s cliche, but of course most teachers are passionate about their students and their content area. Teachers that I have seen that are most comfortable shifting to a PBL framework are passionate about things outside of the classroom too. They have hobbies that they love or things that they geek out about. It may be music, coding, knitting, martial arts, or blacksmithing.

It really doesn’t matter what they are passionate about. The important thing is that these teachers proudly share their passions with students modeling excitement about learning!

My Obsession

I was a concrete finisher for twenty years before I was a teacher. My students thought that I was obsessed with concrete, and I guess that compared to a “normal” person I am. They would troll me in class by calling it “cement” just to hear my lecture on how that was an inaccurate term. Seriously if we had a new student, they would tell her to ask me a question about cement.  (You can learn the difference between concrete and cement with Clarence in the video above). Once I even wrote a poem about concrete.

But the truth is that I exaggerated my love of concrete for important reasons!

It all started my first year at our PBL school. The district had remodeled part of the Career Tech Center into an amazing space for us. It had these exposed concrete columns (see GIF above) that were beautiful. The exterior ones were left natural, but the interior ones were painted.

One class I started randomly lamenting that the district had painted the columns and that it is NEVER ok to paint concrete! Students thought it was hilarious and kept asking me questions about concrete. They even started tweeting out about it. Of course they were egging me on, down a classic teacher rabbit trail.

At first I kept talking about concrete because students thought it was funny. It became an inside joke for me to go off in great detail on how great concrete is and its scientific properties. The truth is, that I didn’t really care about concrete as much as they thought I did.

But then I realized something deeper was happening and that’s why I never let the topic die, but talked about my concrete obsession even more.

My passion for concrete is weird. I mean really weird. No one cares about what sidewalks are made of. I bet you don’t have a pile of coffee table books on concrete at your house. But by me proudly sharing my weirdness, it gave unofficial permission for students to share their weirdness too.

Students could share about anime, playing the accordion, cosplay, or Dr. Who. My students had unique, weird passions and it became cool to talk about them. Our classroom was a safe place, where everyone could be themselves and be accepted. My public display of affection for concrete created a positive classroom culture.

Project Design

I had a couple of students whose entire lives focused on being woodsman. They would be “off task” in my history class because they were reading college level botany texts and watching YouTube videos on wilderness survival. One of them built a wigwam at his house.

Using PBL, I was able to integrate their passion into our class. I had them focus their research on Native Americans viewpoints throughout history. They loved the Revolution Garden project where we looked at the harmful results of Industrialization.

Teachers can use the PBL framework to engage kids by tying projects to student passions or integrating their passions into projects. Student passions could be a focus for research in a project like my woodsman students. The rest of the class benefits from the deep, passionate research about topics that they would probably never choose themselves.

Student passions could also be used to create a final product. I once had a girl who decorated a cake for her final product. It was full of imagery and symbolism. Students’ talents that are often ignored in school, can shine through projects. Examples of skills that I have seen from students include video shooting and editing, graphic design, coding, public speaking, dance, carpentry, sewing, and anime. I have watched students find a career path through skills that they have discovered and developed through projects.

For a passion project at the end of the year, I taught students how to make concrete candleholders.

The passionate teacher can connect with students in multiple ways. By recognizing students’ passions in project design, teachers can build relationships with students and engage more students in their class and their content. Besides teacher passions show both are humanity and excitement about living.

Links to the rest of the series on Ideal Traits of a PBL Teacher:

  1. Overview
  2. Student Centered
  3. Flexible
  4. Passionate
  5. Self efficacious
  6. Collaborative

Questions? PBL Consulting?  I can be found at my blog michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.