Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Best Teaching in 60 Minutes

Envision a classroom where students are learning how to code, how wind turbines work, researching how to make a lighting system for under the bed, testing air pollution, or creating a culinary website for future cooks. This can happen in your classroom! For the past two years, I have incorporated Genius Hour in my instruction. It has ultimately changed how I teach today. What is Genius Hour? Genius Hour is a time in the classroom where students explore and learn about their own interests and passions. It started with Google when the company gave their workers 20% of their work week to explore anything they were interested in. As a result, Gmail, Google News, AdSense, Google Talk, and Google Reader were created by employees during their 20% innovation time. In my classroom, I give my students every Friday to work on their projects as long as they are caught up on work from Monday through Thursday. As a middle school teacher, I teach skills, concepts, and standards in various ways, but every lesson will not reach my students' interests. The idea of Genius Hour is for my students to be innovative while authentically engaged in learning an interest. It is a simple concept; give students time to learn something they WANT to learn. Before you dive in, here are 4 tips if you are thinking of incorporating Genius Hour:

1. Plan and be flexible. - This is not free time on the computers or iPads. Genius Hour takes planning, but you will learn the most through trying it out in your classroom. Each year will get better as you learn what works and what doesn't. The following link has a wealth of resources you can download instead of creating everything from scratch - Genius Hour Resources. I have also included a link to my Google Drive with all of my resources. For my first year, I created a timeline of what I would be doing each week. Twitter is fantastic for communicating with other educators and getting ideas or asking questions. Just use #GeniusHour to get in touch with others! Two great people to follow and ask questions directly are: @JoyKirr and @DonWettrick. (Follow me @NancyMcD8) Personally, I bought Don Wettrick's book Pure Genius. It will guide you through the whole idea of how to implement and run Genius Hour. (Don't worry - It is super short and a fast read. I highly recommend it!)
2. Give students time to think and discuss what their passions and interests are before you begin. - When I introduced this project for the first time, my students had no clue what they were passionate or interested in. I was a little shocked. My students have always been spoonfed what they were supposed to learn and how to do it. Genius Hour is the complete opposite. Students must be given time to explore ideas and also talk about them. I had students come up with guiding questions and then we discussed each one of them as a class. Through this process, students give their peers suggestions and feedback about their project proposal. It is essential to plan the time if you want students to find something they are truly passionate and interested in. If you do, they will find something and very rarely ask to change. Check out this Live Binder where teachers are encouraged to share and add questions students have come up. It is great to share with the kids when you introduce Genius Hour!

3. Have students set goals, track what they accomplish, and blog (if possible). - When students set goals and write what they accomplish each work session, it gives them purpose. It will also be easy for you as the teacher to check in with everyone each week. Mini-conferences are essential so you know where each student is in the Genius Hour process. All the links above have resources you can use for tracking and setting goals. (Bonus - These are perfect evidence pieces for your teacher evaluation.) This year I am having my students write blog updates and putting them on Twitter. The kids LOVE it! They think it is so cool their words are out there on the internet and others are reading about their projects. This is a powerful tool and I encourage educators everywhere to use it! (Check out my blog "Teach4Connections" and read the Genius Hour updates from my students for examples.) 

4. Be ready for students to finish at different times. - This was the hardest part for me my first year. Since everyone is working on different projects, they will finish at different times. There is a point where you have to set a due date for everyone, but it is okay if some finish ahead of time. Have them share their project to the class and let them choose another topic to start. It's okay if they don't finish the second or third or fourth project. The goal of Genius Hour is for students to learn and be engaged in something they want to learn about.

The genius of Genius Hour is it is all about the process not the completed projects. The students will be so excited for this time each week and will be fully engaged the entire time. If they aren't, they need to pick a different topic. My students continue to impress me with the topics and projects they are working on. Looking around the room on a Friday and watching students coding, creating websites, making videos, building, experimenting, researching, taking notes, interviewing others, blogging, etc. reminds me why I became a teacher. This is authentic learning and engagement at its finest. Children need opportunities to explore their passions and interests. As educators, we should honor that. 

Happy Connecting,
Nancy McDowell
6th Grade Language Arts & Social Studies
Center Grove Middle School North

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