Outside the Box to Engage & Motivate: Genius Hour

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Last week I had the opportunity to present at the Powerful Learning Conference.  It is always amazing to be surrounded by educators who are passionate about their profession.  To continue to be motivated to find practices, strategies, and resources to reach all learners in the classroom, despite long hours, very little gratitude, and more “stuff” added to their teaching plate is overwhelming.  I am so proud to be a part of this community and so thankful my own children are loved each day by powerful, effective teachers.

This year one of my presentations, Educational Trends: Teaching Outside the Box for Student Success, offered all 250 participants the opportunity to be exposed to teaching methodologies that are proving successful in classrooms globally, when used effectively.  These next few posts, I will be sharing some excerpts from this presentation.

The first “teaching trend” is Genius Hour. I hate the term, trend.  A trend tends to incite thoughts of fleeting “fads”.  But I am here to tell you, this is a powerful practice that is growing globally.  It is here to stay.  What makes this practice so powerful is it can be tweaked to fit the needs of your students and classroom.  Genius Hour, also known as Passion Projects, 20% Time, and Innovation Time to name a few, are rapidly becoming classroom practices to engage and motivate learners of all ages.  The idea is simple.

Imagine a workplace, like Google, that made a deal with its employees.  You give this company 100% of your effort, brainpower, love for 80% of the week, and they will give you 20% of the work week to work on ideas you are passionate about that may not necessarily fit within your job parameters.  Pretty insightful, right?  Imagine a world without Google Apps for Education, Google Hangouts, Google Classroom?? Now bring that idea into your classroom… You (student) give me (teacher) 100% of your effort, brainpower, love of all things school for 80% of the week, and I will let you work on something you are passionate about. (That is school appropriate.) Would that spark the interest of some of your learners?

Not sure?  Here is my journey with *Bobby.  Every time I would present new learning materials/content to the class, he would always challenge me why this was important.  It didn’t matter if the lessons were at the top of the SAMR Model in effective technology use, or something that the students were cheering so loud in appreciation for that the principal had to see if her attention and guidance was needed, *Bobby was not impressed.  Nothing I did made learning fun, or relevant for *Bobby.  Then I tried Genius Hour.  You see, *Bobby would always tell me, regardless how many times I was clearly communicating the relevance of our learning activity, that he could go “live in the woods, hunt, and survive without knowing this stuff”.  I was very sure he could.  But with introduction of Genius Hour, I now used his “survival skills” to my advantage.

If *Bobby gave me 100% of his effort for 80% of the week, I would let him research and create something to present to the class to show he was a “Genius” on wilderness survival skills.  I had *Bobby hooked.  Now to make it happen.

*Bobby and I sat down and filled out a Genius Hour Contract.  This is where I let *Bobby have a voice and choice in his learning, but me being the sneaky teacher that I am, inserted content standards or skill sets that still needed to be mastered by *Bobby for personal academic success.  He still gets to work on what he wants, and I can insert standards to be mastered.  The really tricky part is motivating *Bobby to give 100% of his time 80% of the week.  If he, or any other student, was missing assignments, did poorly on assignments due to lack of effort (not because of my lack of effectiveness in teaching material: BIG DIFFERENCE!) or was a behavior issue during the week, 100% effort was NOT given.  During the designated Genius Hour time, this work would be completed, redone, or behavior consequences met.  If and when the work, consequences were completed, they could use the rest of the time for their Genius Hour project.  Did I mention *Bobby created a guide to wilderness survival?  Very easy way to tie in writing, reading, and science learning standards.

This sounds great, but where do you find the time in the day?  In my elementary classroom, we had whole group reading instruction everyday followed by small reading groups/independent reading time.  On Thursday and Friday of each week, I would designate the last small reading group rotation as Genius Hour time.  This allowed a 15-20 minute period twice a week where the students could research, write, create, investigate, and analyze information on a topic they were passionate about.  I felt it was a “win-win” for everyone involved.  I have seen Middle and High Schools designate one day/week or a whole week between units as this time for personalized innovation time.

Might be interested?  Here are some steps I used to help me facilitate this worthwhile personalized learning process:

1. Students would fill out a Genius Hour Proposal (optional)

2. Students and I meet and create Genius Hour Contract (this is where I have my content standards ready).  Here is a list of Question Stems to help develop essential questions.

3.  Student decides how he will present his “Genius” to his peers (non-negotiable: all students have to create a presentation in some fashion)

4.  Teacher and student designate “check-in” days to check on student progress and blogging posts about student learning.

5.  Students presents “Genius” to class.

As I stated before, Genius Hour can be tweaked and modified to fit the needs of your students.  Some Genius Hour projects can take a few weeks, some over a month.  Some can be individual or with partners/groups.  (When working with a partner group it is crucial when assigning expectations that each member has the same rigor of critical thinking/creating within the project.  You don’t want one or two people doing all the work!) Never underestimate what your students can do.  Even our youngest learners have passions.  A Kindergarten Genius Hour will look very different, but it is possible and it is happening.  Some Genius Hour projects my past students have completed: A step by step flyer on how to create bracelets using different materials; a reenactment of the Geddysburg Address using sock puppets, a video tutorial on how to use basic coding skills to create a review game, a video of a non-fluent reader fluently reading a picture book, a volcano erupting in class, and the list goes on.  I hope you take the time to explore Genius Hour on your own.  Your kiddos will love you for it.

Additional resources:

Genius Hour

Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level by Don Wettrick 


Genius Hour Resources