Innovation Day 2011

As a teacher you have good days and you have bad days and if you are lucky you have a great day. Today was one of those great days. We held our inaugural Innovation Day for the 6th grade in my building. Throughout the day we had over 250 6th grade students working on self chosen and self directed learning projects. One of the hallmarks of the school I work in and the principal that leads us is innovation. As teachers we are encouraged to be innovative in every aspect of our jobs. Naturally, this spilled over into our work with students. Matt Langes, who is a 7th grade teacher and team leader, piloted the innovated day idea with his team of roughly 100 7th graders with a great level of success about a month ago.

The 6th grade teams began talking about doing a similar day but decided to do it with the entire grade level instead of just one team. To get things rolling we had to introduce the whole idea to the students. Our students have been known to break down crying when their lockers are jammed so telling them they would have an entire day to own their learning was a big step. We told them that they would have an entire school day to learn about what they wanted and to create evidence of their learning in any way they chose. As we started talking about the day, the students started getting excited.

When we got closer to the actual day, students were filling out plan sheets that outlined exactly what they were going to be doing. Within their plans they had to pick what they were going to be learning about, what resources they needed, and what their final product or evidence would be. As teachers we helped students focus their plans but the ideas were theirs as the power of choice was a key belief we had.

Today was the actual “Innovative Day” as students came to school with their supplies, resources, and an abundance of enthusiasm. We broke the students into working areas based on their topics of choice and the resources needed. There was a section for building, art, music, technology, videos, cooking, physical education, and more. Variety was the name of the game as there were over 200 different learning projects being worked on over the course of the day. Many students were working independently but there were plenty of learning groups that developed throughout the day as well. Students started helping each other with projects and ended up learning more than they even originally planned. Here is just a sample of the great work that was done.

We had a student:

• Writing and performing his own guitar solo
• Creating a model out of wood of the Sears Tower
• Writing her own historical fiction short story
• Creating a Rube Goldberg machine
• Designing and creating a replica suit of Roman Armor (out of tinfoil and cardboard)
• Creating a how-to tutorial on baking a cake
• Painting a still life on canvas of a nature scene
• Writing and performing a one-man comedy act
• Researching and presenting on the concentration camps of the Holocaust
• Creating a video highlight reel of basketball moves and plays
• Building a model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa
• Writing a biography of his favorite teacher Mr. Stumpenhorst (<-----ok, I made this one up!)
• Creating a video documentary of Innovative Day
• Building a model of Big Ben
• Choreographing and performing a dance
• Researching Walt Disney and creating a model of the Epcot Center
• Creating a model of numerous World War II battles
• Building a model of the Eiffel Tower
• Researching and creating countless Power Points, posters, and Photo Stories

There was amazing work being done everywhere you looked and it was not unnoticed either. As the students were diligently working they actually had some unexpected visitors stop in. A few adults in suits and business attire stopped in and roamed around the work rooms. They sat down with students and talked with them about what they were doing and genuinely got involved in the students work beyond just the role of a bystander. These adults were the administration from our district office which included our superintendent himself. This is not something that happens often and was a great thing to see for so many reasons. First, they took time out of their administrative schedules to be with students. This simple act shows that they care about the work being done in schools and have an invested interest in the kids. It is nice for our student’s work to be noticed by those outside of our classrooms or their individual homes. The second reason this was a great thing was it allows the decision makers within the district to see the great work the teachers are doing. This is important for them to see what teachers are doing so they can adequately support them in a positive way. As a teacher, to see one of your struggling students able to articulately speak to an associate superintendent about her passion for her work was a very powerful thing for me.

In addition, to the “big wigs”, we had many teachers outside of the grade level stepping in and giving up their plan periods to hang out and work with the students. It was great to see so many teachers and other personnel in the building stepping in and taking an interest in student learning in its purest and more unfiltered form. Nothing they were doing will be on a test. None of their activities were part of a district assessment. There will be no questions on a standardized test about what they did. They were learning about things they had a passion for and nothing else.

There are surely those readers who are asking a few questions that I will answer in the closing of this post.

Was the student’s work graded? Nothing was graded nor will it be. The focus was on the learning.

Did you have any discipline issues with giving kids the freedom to day what they wanted for a whole day? None! When you give kids a highly engaging activity that they choice in and buy into; behavior problems are nonexistent.

What did you do with the projects and things kids created? We documented them all with pictures and videos taken throughout the day. In addition, students saved all their work in a global network drive for future viewing. We also spent the last 45 minutes of the afternoon doing a large group show and tell with the students sharing their day’s work.

Again, this was a great day. One of the best moments was the end of the afternoon when a 12 year old boy stepped in front of over 250 of his peers and played a song on his guitar that he wrote himself. The room was dead quiet except for the sound of a blaring electric guitar responding to his small but nimble fingers. When he was finished nearly every student in the room was on their feet cheering and yelling.

As the students were walking out at the end of the day one student stopped me and asked, “Can we do this again tomorrow?”

I responded with, “Well, I would love to but tomorrow is Saturday,” in a half joking manner.

This student looked me dead in the eyes and replied, “I would come back tomorrow to do this again.”


Sally Boone said...

Okay...I'm excited! I'd love to do and Innovation Day with the 6th Graders. Would you share the plan sheet?

Lauren said...

Sounds like an amazing day all around; thanks for sharing!

While none of this creative/productive giftedness will ever appear on a test, it is equally if not more important than that schoolhouse, traditional form of intelligence.... why? Because that's what engages the children. It is relevant, it is meaningful to those who matter the most: the ones who would come to school on a Saturday for more of the same!

How can we (as teachers) harness that excitement and energy daily?

Glenn Gibson said...

Awesome idea!
I agree that as teachers we get bogged down with the day to day and the kids suffer in the creativity department. (Ken Robinson's Ted Talk is a good resource for how we stifle creativity) Your innovation day idea seems like an excellent way to fight back the stifling nature of day to day teaching and allow creativity to grow.
I have not done something like this, but have suggested something similar in the past, but I don't think the rest of the staff was ready. I will be bringing your project up at our next meeting and see what the feedback is.
As for Lauren's question, "how can we (as teachers) harness that excitement and energy daily?" We can do it, but it typically requires intensive planning and use of focused inquiry. I just spend two weeks on an inquiry project that has the kids screaming for more, and I have to get my butt (sorry for the term) in gear to move forward and ride the tide of enthusiasm. It is a lot of work but the benefits outweigh the planning side doldrums.

Ms A said...

Bravo Josh! This is absolutely brilliant and the comment at the end from the student says it all. Congratulations to all of you for doing wonderful things for kids and with kids.

Thanks for sharing with us.

Josh said...

Thanks for all of the comments. It was a great day for the kids to not only express their creativity but also to take ownership for their learning. I am a firm beleiver in the power of choice and the role it can play in motivating and engaging students in learning.

Dr. Christopher R McGee said...


Great post. I'm thinking of developing a class that I teach that is JUST about innovation. I love it. I'm also wanting to embed this into my class. I'd need a lot of administrative support to make it happen, not sure i'd get it but it would be outstanding. Thanks for inspiring me to get better and be better at inspiring students!

The force is strong in you my friend...


Lisa Cooley said...

I just sent this to my fellow school board members. I love it -- but I would also love to see how it played out over weeks, like watching a river flow over sand, what shapes are carved, how the streams join together, which go off on their own...give this structure, or lack thereof, the kind of freedom to become a kind of anti-school. I'd also like to see, at the end of a year, how many standards are met just by kids following their own interests and passions in this way!

Mrs. Rumsey said...

Wonderful idea! So glad you are willing to let go of the reins for a day! I have listed you as a blog I read on my website. Hoping to give my parents a view of my teaching philosophy through other blogs.

Thank you,
Angie Rumsey

Mrs. Tenkely said...


Unknown said...

What a wonderful day! What a gift to all of your students! They will never forget it, and I'm sure they will bring the power of this learning experience forward to all their educational and life endeavors. I'd like to do this with my students, or support this event with another grade level in my system. Thanks for sharing your event with us.

Peter Lydon said...

Great Idea...Innovation day. Imagine how fantastic a innovation year could be. Wish we had it here. Well done.

Unknown said...

Wow! It really was the realmdeal "FedEx Day" just like Daniel pink speaks of (see Ted talk candle problem and pink). I am going to share this with teachers!

Unknown said...

Wow. A real "FedEx" day, like Pink describes in TED tak candle problem. Awesome. I will share your day with peers.
Just amazing, really!

Anna Varna said...

Fantastic Day! I wish I could do something like that at my school and now that I'm thinking about it, it isn't as impossible as it sounds. Thanks for sharing the enthusiasm and excitement!

Rachel said...

I love everything about this project, and starting so young at 6th grade, I hope the tradition can carry on! Great work, I am very envious of what you did here :) Hope to be this innovative with my classroom sometime in the near future.

Unknown said...

Fantastic! Yesterday I got very depressed about the "normal" approach to teaching and spoke (a more accurate word may be ranted :/) a bit on my blog (

I cannot tell you how much just reading this has lifted my spirits and convinced me that it's not an impossible dream to get *everyone* engaged in student centered learning.

Vicki said...

I shared this post with my building principal and we would like to do an Innovation Day with our students. I love the idea of "Fed Ex" days and I was looking for the right way to implement them in a school setting. Would you be willing to share your planning sheets with us and answer questions about Innovation Day as we begin this process?

Akevy Greenblatt said...

Just reading it got me excited. i am going to share with my other administrators.
Thanks for sharing

Anonymous said...

Sounds very similar to what they do every day at Montessori schools. The kids love learning.

Jabiz Raisdana (Intrepid Teacher) said...

Have a whole day is a great way to get students motivated for this type of learning. As you know I am working on a unit like this myself:

and reading this gave me some great ideas. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Wow, this sounds like Workshop Week at my kids school here in Newark, DE - Newark Center for Creative Learning ( It's amazing what kids will do when given the freedom to be creative. My kids school does not use letter grades to evaluate their work, engages them so that they love learning, and helps encourage the next generation of leaders. Let's help more schools give this experience to their kids!

Anonymous said...

Hi Josh,

Sounds like a really inspiring day!! Wish we had them when I was at school.

After reading Dan Pink I'm trying to introduce a similar 'Fed Ex' day into my school in the UK - Wilmslow High School.

Any advice would be really appreciated - planning, deployment of resources etc..

Keep up the creative work

Matt Bebbington

Jennifer Bond said...

I am going to give this a whirl on Tuesday with my third graders. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and thinking out of the box for this. The kids are pumped, the parents are excited, and I am anxious to see what comes of it! We are going to share our projects at night for our Team Bond Night. In addition, we are going to ustream it out during the day.

Teacher Mum said...

Oh Wow - I can't believe I only just discovered this post. It sounds truly incredible.
At our school, we have something called Enrichment Day where the teachers run special activities through the day and children select which ones they want to go to. The Year 6 class also has an activity where they have to teach the rest of the class a new skill that they are personally good at..but this puts a totally new spin on everything.
I am now a very keen follower.

Bob said...

I love your enthusiasm for your students and the kind of learning that truly engages them. Seeing kids so focused and so purposeful in pursuing genuine interests is really a thing of beauty.

Unknown said...

Sharing this w/ our local Middle School. Such a great of example of moving from wanting to do it, to actually doing it. I look forward to hearing about future Innovation Days at your school. This must be a wonderful place to learn!

Jim said...

Will you share your notes on how you got started with this whole thing and how you broached the students with it? I also teach 6th grade and love the idea of turning them loose for a day to see what they can do. I'd love to see how you built up to the actual day, if you'd be willing to share. Thanks!

JBsmom said...

What a fantastic concept. This is a great way to get to know your students on a deeper level just by watching them learn on their own. How many of us really know what our students are "interested" in outside of school? I love this concept!

Jvanvliet said...

Great idea well executed! I'm sending the link to your post to our MS administration and faculty to see if we can try this!
Thanks for sharing!
Jo Ray

Dave Guymon said...

It is great to see an Innovation Day in action via your blog. This is a project that I have wanted to implement in my classroom, but have not understood how exactly to do it. I would bet that Innovation Day 11 will be one of the most memorable experiences that your students will ever have. Thank you for sharing.

Tellison said...

I love the idea of the students involving the whole 6th grade glass. They way they can all enjoy the activities, instead of some of them watching the other. I believe teacher's should work more together with the students, not only doing work, but other fun activities at the school.

Queenbeabea said...

I've been doing FEDEX days with my grades 5 and 6 students ever since reading Dan Pink's book, Drive. We do it once a term. I've had CSI style minimovies featuring stuffed toys as victims and court scenes, choreagraphies, ukulele music, novel writing, poems, prezi presentations, games and animations made in Scratch, podcasts made with Garageband...We have a FEDEX day coming up this week. Can't wait!