Teachers Anne Sulzmann and Scott Salway told board members about the “FedEx day” they held with eighth-grade students. The concept is not based on a practice pioneered by the shipping giant FedEx, but it refers to the company’s motto: “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” On a “FedEx day,” employees, or in this case, students, are given 24 hours to work on their own projects and ideas. Similarly, Google employees can use up to 20% of their work day to work on their own projects. Sulzmann said companies that have instituted similar policies have found that it has increased productivity. “They also found that employees were coming up with ideas that the CEOs never thought of,” she said.
Sulzmann and Salway adapted the concept to the classroom. “We thought, what better way to get students to start practicing 21st-century skills?” Sulzmann said.
“The jobs of 2020 aren’t even around yet,” said Salway. “So how do we prepare students?”
Students were told their projects would be evaluated for innovation, problem solving, and collaboration. Students proposed three projects, and teachers approved one of their ideas. “When we gave them the interest survey, it was amazing how much science stuff we saw,” Salway said, “even earth science.”
Work on the projects started at 10 am, and the completed projects were due at 10 am the next day. “One of the challenges was time management,” Sulzmann said. “They learned how to best map out their time.”
As part of their presentation, students had to reflect on how well they met their goals. Sulzman said that, upon reflection, some students realized “They worked on an idea that wasn’t pushing the limits; that wasn’t innovative. We also pushed the idea of failure – if you go out and fail, what happens? What happens when you hit a snafu?”
Projects included a one-act play, written, produced, and acted in one day. Another student produced a slide show of images taken around the school. “One of the best, most innovative was done by a group of students interested in psychology,” Sulzmann said. “They did an experiment on what motivates sixth-graders.”
Sulzmann said students were so engaged in their work that behavioral problems nearly disappeared for the day. And the connection wasn’t lost at the end of the day. “Students were motivated to finish their projects at home, to be ready for the next day,” Sulzmann said. “One of the reasons we wanted to try this was because we had some students who were not engaged. When we went to the planning part, some of those students didn’t want to stop, and we almost didn’t want to stop them. You could feel the energy in the room and you could see the motivation and the interest level.”
The two teachers said their experiment wouldn’t have been possible at most schools, and thanked principal Keith Lyman for giving them the freedom to try the new approach. “We’re going to do it once per quarter,” said Sulzmann.
Lyman said the teachers were on the “front line” of innovation. “They’re already doing the things we’re looking for in a new school – we struggle with kids who aren’t engaged in school.”
Salway said one of the concerns expressed by businesses is that “Kids coming out of school – good schools – just want to know what the answer is. In the real world, sometimes you don’t even know what the question is.”
Sulzman said she has also been changing the normal classroom routine to one that gives her more time to work directly with students. Instead of breaking students’ time into classroom instruction, classroom work, and homework, she’s creating instructional videos students watch at home or during study time at school. “They go home and watch the video, they come in and are ready to work when I’m there to help them.”
“If there’s a problem, they can go back and look at the video,” said Salway.
Deerfield Valley Elementary School Principal Rebecca Fillion said the innovation was exciting. “You’re moving from ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide on the side.’”