Today I wanted to share my introduction to Genius Hour in the classroom, including the challenges I faced and how I overcame them. Before I do, let me start by telling you a little about how I got started with the whole thing. I love helping students find their passion for learning, but for many students, traditional instruction doesn't teach students how to learn. Several years ago, I came across this post about passion projects by Jen Runde from Runde's Room.
In her article, Jen describes the way she encourages her students to explore their interests and passions. I was very intrigued, but my first thought was: “I've got a full plate and it's feeling like a tough year.”
While it seemed like an excellent idea and one I would love to try, I couldn't see how it could work in my busy classroom. However, after a few days of sleeping on it, I decided to give it a go. After incorporating some of her strategies and adding my own twists, I can honestly say I love implementing Genius Hour in the classroom.
Before we dive in, let's get started with the basics.
What you'll find on this page:
What is Genius Hour?
At the most basic level, Genius Hour is student-directed learning that allows students to take their interests and use them to explore the world through inquiry-based learning. Arising from the practice of “20% time” in the business world, the idea was that employees (or in this case students) need more opportunities to explore their personal passions and utilize their imaginations.
Here's a little video with more information:
Adding Genius Hour in the classroom
I've had students do independent research in past years, but typically I reserve it for later in the year or use it as an enrichment method for students when I am compacting.
However, my campus provides enrichment time each Friday, and this seemed like the perfect fit. Everyone can be working on what they enjoy and are passionate about.
What could be easier than that, right? Wrong!
Through this 5-week process (which ended up taking 8 weeks when all was said and done), I learned a ton and discovered I had to work harder planning for this one hour than I did for the entire rest of the week.
Yes, it was hard at first. That being said, I would do it again in a heartbeat. Why, you might ask?
Well, for starters, every single student in my class was challenged as a learner and got their moment to shine. The pride in their eyes as they shared their final product was overwhelming…there were several moments, as my struggling learners stood proud and shared their amazing products, where I was literally forced to hold back tears.
It was also amazing to see what they were truly interested in. I learned so much about my students! They had really great questions, and the majority of them didn't need much help at all to get to an actionable version.
What kinds of questions did they want to answer?
Here are a few examples of the questions my students developed during our first genius hour in the classroom:
- How can I create a design a website to teach others about the world?
- Can I develop a recipe that would make a bubble last for 2 minutes?
- How do I build a robot that can pick something up?
Lessons learned from my first Genius Hour
The process of incorporating Genius Hour into my classroom taught me many things. I learned a lot of things from the first time I tried genius hour. I've now taught several students how to really dig into their passion and get a ton out of those 45 minutes. So, what challenges do I sometimes face? What solutions do I use?
Here are just a few:
Problem #1: It was slightly (or more than slightly) chaotic at times.
Duh! Should have predicted this one. It sounded so easy in the videos and the blog posts I read. We talk about their passions, and I help them develop an actionable question and from there they go forth to explore and create!
Nope, there was WAY more on the back end than that.
If I were to do anything differently, having a plan for each week in advance of starting this whole endeavor would be it. Of course, over time I figured it out, but it would have been way easier to have this done in advance.
Solution #1: Create a flexible organizational system to keep everyone on track.
In order to help prevent the chaos the next time I implemented Genius Hour, I created some organizational tools and a Genius Hour unit plan to help guide the process. I also created a journal for students to keep track of their projects. Together these really help reduce the chaos.
Problem #2: Finding appropriate resources to introduce Genius Hour to younger students
I also discovered that the videos that Jen Runde was using with her 5th and 6th graders were above the comprehension level of some of my lower third graders.
This led to some confusion initially, which I then had to spend time clarifying.
Solution #2: Find new materials or make some myself!
Next time I introduce Genius Hour to a group of learners, I am going to try using a more grade level appropriate video like the one you see below. I think this will make it a little easier for my struggling learners to understand our goal.
I also had a group of students indicate they may want to make a video to introduce Genius Hour to next years students. If they end up doing this for their next project, I might use that as my intro.
Problem #3: Everyone has different interests…it can be hard to keep up.
The kids are picking projects based on their own interests and passions. However, it is hard enough to be familiar with the current trends. It is even harder to be an expert in everything they are passionate about.
I can't lie. I know nothing about computer programming…or the chemistry involved in bubble making. However, both of these were projects my kids were interested in.
Solution #3: Plan a pause week & ask for favors.
I'll be honest. I made some of these changes while things were in progress. The biggest thing I learned – ASK FOR FAVORS. The next time I do this, I think we'll do our brainstorming and then I'll have a week without doing work on our Genius Hour projects so I can start making connections.
At the beginning of the year, I think there is this pressure to have the students see you as someone knowledgeable. However, I know nothing about aeronautics.
I took a mechanical engineering class once in college (mostly because it was the only course that studied abroad in England over a summer), but I spent very little time learning about bridge building…and a lot of time enjoying the pub scene.
Therefore, I made it my goal to find each student an expert in their field for them to talk to during the research phase of our projects. This was a HUGE undertaking (but super rewarding).
Problem #4: Finding community contacts who were knowledable & kid-friendly.
Like I mentioned above. It is impossible to know everything. I wanted my kids to get authentic learning experiences. Therefore, I connected every single student with an expert related to their action research question.
Solution #4: Use technology to connect with experts around the world.
How did I do it? I started out by meeting with my students individually and developing a list of skills and knowledge they would need to accomplish their goals. I also had them generate a list of questions they wanted expert advice about related to how best to achieve their goal.
In my group of twenty students, this meant I had to locate and coordinate a time for my student to meet with:
- a web designer
- a professional photographer
- a chef
- an organic chemist
- an aeronautical engineer
- a civil engineer
- a computer programmer
- a movie producer
- and more…
Needless to say, it was a tall order! Thankfully, I had a pretty broad network so I started with friends and acquaintances (Thank you, Facebook!).
I also sent out an email to my colleagues on campus and parents of my students, which actually ended up being where I found a large number of my experts.
Friends of friends are a GREAT resource!
In the end, nearly all of my students were able to have a “consultation” or lesson from an expert in their area of interest either in person or via Zoom.
Problem #5: It can feel uncomfortable for parents.
Woah, Nelly! This was a huge issue early on for me.
I work in a school where the parents are very involved, and many of them were terrified because their child had selected to work on a question that was going to require some serious skill and time.
I cannot tell you how many emails I had about the project that were focused on how I was going to grade it or how they should be working with their child.
Despite having talked about it at Parent Night (No, it isn't graded and the goal is to have your child see the process of being a self-directed learner and to explore their own interests.)
Solution #5: Set expectations early.
Let parents know from the beginning that it isn't about WHAT is produced.
After a few weeks of this, I realized that I needed to send these reminders home in my weekly update email EVERY. SINGLE. WEEK.
My note went something along these lines:
Please remember these projects are not graded on their completion. Your child's only grades will come through their reflections on their learning and growth. Some students may not complete their project before the showcase because their learning has led them to new understandings or toward a new idea. This is totally ok! The goal of this project is to help your children see themselves as capable, independent learners. Encourage your child and be available to help with questions, but don't feel you need to guide this project. Thanks for your support!
Of course, in the end, I still ended up with a few projects that suddenly transformed from kid-done to professional-looking overnight before the big showcase…but most parents finally felt the pressure was off.
Problem #6: Freedom means things don't go as planned.
About halfway through a few of my kids decided they wanted to combine their projects into one. I went back and forth about it, but in the end, I realized this partnership wasn't taking away from the goal.
Solution #6: As Elsa says….Let it go!
Both boys were eagerly working and collaborating each time we had a Genius Hour. This was the purpose of the project. I needed to let it go and let them learn.
The Genius Projects in my classroom
So what did I end up with at the end?
Here are a few examples of what our final projects looked like:
- We learned a new sport, invented by a student who struggles to focus and is nearly always the last one done. The kids LOVED it! We trekked outside after he taught us the rules, and it was so amazing to see him take on a leadership role as he officiated the games
- Wearing safety goggles, my bridge builder and I added more than 10 pounds of weight to her bridge as her classmates cheered. The bridge held strong until we ran out of weight at about 15 pounds. Claps and high-fives all around!
- One student invented a new soap, including her own logo design and label. The kids loved it so much she was asked to share the recipe…and she left her bottle at the sink for all of us to use.
- Our budding moviemaker shared the premiere of his short stop-action film and did a post-movie Q & A.
There were so many more great projects. This wasn't the best part though. The best part was listening to kids spontaneously tell the class what they were going to do for their NEXT project.
Sometimes this meant building off their own project. Many times it was based on what a classmate had taught them. They were truly learning from one another.
So have you joined the Genius Hour movement? If so, what have you learned from your experience? Share them in the comments below.