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Is A Genius Hour Right For Your Classroom?

Posted by Molly Rupert on December 2, 2015

Blank stares - and then the barrage began...

  • I don’t have any problems I want to solve.
  • I don’t understand what you want us to do.
  • What do you mean by “I’m not giving you a rubric”?
  • How do you expect us to do this on top of all of our other work?
  • What does this have to do with English?  Don’t we have to take an ECA in May?!
  • This sounds awful!

My students were less than thrilled when I pitched the idea of Genius Hour to them.  I naively thought that they would be stoked to spend every Friday working on a self-designed project and that their minds would be teeming with ideas of new skills they wanted to learn or problems they wanted to solve.  These sophomores were not having it.  They had spent ten years learning to play the game of school - the teacher tells me what to do; I do it; I get a good grade; repeat.  I had just erased all of the rules to the game, and they felt they had been cheated.  Thankfully, they trusted me enough to at least feign interest for the first few weeks.  This was January.  Fast forward to May, and these are the statements I read in their final reflection papers…

  • “This project is improving my sense of identity.”
  • “It is a challenging thing to step out of your comfort zone. So I guess I would like you to know that I appreciate the Genius Hour.”
  • “It feels really cool to just learn how to do something by doing it, and not relying on someone else for instructions or directions.”
  • “I’m most proud of the difficulty of this project. Going in I didn’t think it would be so hard, but I’m kind of happy it is. I’m struggling in this without a doubt, but what is the fun in gliding through everything?”
  • “I’ve also overcome my tendency to be shy around strangers and have reached out, looking for help with this project, as well as finding ways to help others with this project. I’m extremely excited to see how this project and all of my work will make a positive impact on others.”

The transition I witnessed in my students over the course of the semester was the one of the most rewarding experiences I had while teaching, and I can confidently say that implementing Genius Hour was the single best decision I ever made as a classroom teacher.

So, how do you begin?  How do you explain to administrators and parents that you want to take 20% of a student’s (already very full) workday and replace it with a project that is student identified, designed, and executed?  How do you make time for this?  WHAT ABOUT THE STANDARDS?!?!

Genius Hour challenges students in numerous ways that align with College and Career Readiness standards.  While completing the projects, students research and analyze information, synthesize multiple texts, conduct interviews, organize data, create physical and digital projects, and communicate their findings.  Before beginning this project, consider making a list of all of the standards the students will practice by means of research, critical thinking, and information synthesis.  Understand that students will work at different paces, and not all students will be working on the same standard at the same moment in time; however, by the end of the project, all of these standards will have been touched upon.

Keep in mind that Genius Hour won’t look the same in any two classrooms.  Constructing and modifying the project in a way that makes sense for your learners is key.  To start visualizing your own version, make a list of goals for your students.  Mine looked like this:

  • Encourage students to take risks
  • Encourage students to pursue a passion
  • Develop research and synthesis skills
  • Improve organization skills
  • Enhance problem solving skills
  • Instill interest in investigation
  • Spark imagination and creativity
  • Allow time for reflection

From here, I set the parameters of the project.  My students would have the option to learn a new skill or to solve a problem.  The project would span an entire semester, and they would be given class time on Fridays to work.  They would be responsible for completing four main phases of the project: write a proposal, create a timeline, carry out the project, present the project.  Along the way, they would write mini reflections, and at the end they would turn in a formal reflection with an MLA citation page of the resources used throughout the semester.  I gave them no set rubric (which they hated!) but explained that if they completed each phase to the best of their abilities, they would receive a high grade.  While I did give guiding questions and parameters for the final presentation, I was intentionally vague about the grading process.  I didn’t want their work to be influenced by my demands - I wanted them to see what they were capable of on their own, without working to meet the expectations of someone else.  They set their own expectations (that were approved by me), which was far more effective than meeting a checklist of requirements.  

As an educator, this project can be terrifying.  For the majority of the semester, my classroom looked like a zoo on Fridays.  A visitor could see students engaged in a variety of activities: using a sewing machine, practicing sign language, tapping out Morse code, watching YouTube videos, coding on the computer, composing trumpet solos, writing novels, etc.  It is difficult to release this level of responsibility to the students.  I was fortunate that the majority of my sophomores could handle it; you may need to start with a smaller scale project to work through the process once before committing to a semester-long Genius Hour.

By May, I knew this group of students better than I had known any group before.  From reading their reflections and acting as an advisor during our Friday sessions, I came to understand what excited them, scared them, puzzled them, worried them, and made them proud.  They impressed me with their abilities - abilities I may never have seen if I had continued prescribing their learning.  I was awed by their discoveries about the world...their families...their beliefs...themselves.  

I firmly believe that Genius Hour is appropriate for all grade levels, content areas, and ability levels; it is up to the teacher to structure Genius Hour in a way that makes sense for their learners.  By May, my students were grateful to have had this opportunity, and many informed me they were going to try to schedule a weekly Genius Hour for themselves throughout the summer so they could continue their work or start a new project.  Lifelong learning for the win!

Convinced that Genius Hour is right for your classroom?  You could have the process up and running in January!  The most difficult step is committing to the project; once you’ve leapt that hurdle, it’s time to research and make a plan.  Consider getting ideas from The Genius Hour website and following #geniushour on Twitter.  Networking with other educators and learning from their experiences can help ensure that your Genius Hour will be a meaningful experience for you and your students!

Topics: Integration Services

Written by Molly Rupert

School Engagement Specialist
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