When the academic year begins at Hill next month, Bee Stribling knows full well that when the new fourth graders come into his classroom for the first time, many will immediately want to know when the “twenty percent” project on his curriculum might begin.

Some of them had older siblings who had already experienced—and thoroughly enjoyed—an innovative program Stribling had adapted from some of the largest corporations in America, including Google, 3-M and Hewlett Packer (HP).

Bee Stribling and Maya
Bee Stribling and Maya

Those Fortune 500 companies had instituted what is now known as a “free-time rule,” allowing their employees to spend 20 percent of their weekly time on anything they wanted. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin highlighted the idea in their 2004 initial public offering (IPO) letter to potential investors.

“We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20 percent of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google,” Page and Brin wrote. “This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner.”  

In fact, among the innovations that came out of the 20 percent Google experiment included the development of Google News, Gmail, and even AdSense. At 3M, it led to post-it notes.

In Stribling’s fourth grade class, the results are not quite that game-changing, but still quite effective in teaching children the importance of research, critical thinking and following their own particular passions.

And so, this past spring, Brooks, now entering the fifth grade, was developing a motorized skateboard, the better to make commuting to Hill for anyone living nearby far more efficient, and clearly a lot more fun. His classmate, Wagner, built a detailed diorama on the D-Day invasion of Normandy during World War II, all the while learning about its significance in the allied victory over Nazi Germany.

Every other student in the class worked diligently on their own individual passion projects. They ranged from Ally and Ella studying how therapeutic horses help wounded veterans and people with disabilities and Emily learning about the effect of jokes and comedy on health, and what exactly does happen when you laugh. A broken water fountain out in the hall inspired Lilah to do her research on hydration and its importance for human beings.

“Before we start,” Stribling said, “they will all sign a contract that says none of their research will be done for evil. It has to be all good.”

A 36-year-old native of Markham, his family has owned the historic Stribling Orchard not far from Intestate 66 for over 200 years. A graduate of Fauquier High School and Mary Washington University, he’s got a Masters in American history from George Mason and has been teaching at Hill for the last five years. He also runs the school’s popular summer camp program.

     The 20 percent project runs for about two months toward the end of the school year. Stribling said there are three major components—coming up with a driving question that will fuel their research; making something with their own hands (a diorama, a web site, a blog or even video games, for example), and finally doing a public presentation on what they’ve learned in front of their classmates and their parents.

“It makes the learning authentic,” Stribling said. “It’s a student-centered project with traditional skills most kids that age have.  Being a 10-year-old is a great age. They’re highly capable and very curious. They have lower school charm with upper school capabilities.”

The students spend about 2 1/2 hours a week on their projects.. One of the more important premises involves working with an expert if possible. Children doing projects dealing with animals have interviewed a veterinarian. When one student wanted to learn how to become a sculptor, she consulted with Linda Conti, head of Hill’s art program and an accomplished artist herself.

Stribling also takes very much to heart the reminders about one of the school’s guiding principles to all teachers from Head of School Treavor Lord. It originally came from the late Reverend Richard C. Peard, speaking at the Hill School graduation in 1986.

“When you find your place in this world,” Rev. Peard said that day, “remember to help others find theirs.”

At Hill, that’s truly the school’s 100 percent project.

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