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. After incorporating some of her stratgies and adding my own twists, I can honestly say I love implementing Genius Hour projects in the classroom.
What is Genius Hour?
Genius hour didn't start in the classroom, but it is a great fit for upper elementary students. . Here's a little overview of how it all started, in case you aren't familiar.
Incorporating 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:
- 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. Here are just a few:
Issue #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.
How I fixed it:
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 project. Together these really help reduce the chaos.
Issue #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.
How I'll Solve this in the future:
That being said, I found this great video that was a better fit.
Issue #3: You can't know it all!
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.
How I'll solve it in the future:
I'll be honest. I made some of these changes while things were in progress. The biggest thing I learned – ASK FOR FAVORS.
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).
Issue #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.
How I solved it:
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.
In my group of twenty students, this meant locating a web designer, professional photographer, chef, chemist, aeronautical engineer, civil engineer, computer programmer, movie producer, and more.
It was a tall order!
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 FaceTime or Skype.
Issue #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.)
How I solved this issue:
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 over night before the big showcase…but most parents finally felt the pressure was off.
Issue #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.
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 just 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 movie maker 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.
I hope my experiences with Genius Hour in my classroom have inspired you to try some new things. To get more great teaching tips and ideas be sure to follow me on: