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Response: Genius Hours Can Be 'Transformative'

The new "question-of-the-week" is:

How can I implement a "Genius Hour" with my students?

Much lip service is given to the ideas of student choice, project- and problem-based learning, and intrinsic motivation. But what are practical ways teachers can incorporate these ideas into their lessons?

Genius Hours are one strategy many teachers are incorporating. It's an idea adapted from Google and what Daniel Pink originally called "Fed-Ex Days."

Today, Rebecca Mieliwocki, Gallit Zvi, Denise Krebs, Yvette Jackson, Veronica McDermott, Amy Sandvold, Josh Patterson and Maurice J. Elias share their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Rebecca, Gallit, Yvette and Veronica on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

I've used versions of a Genius Hour in my own classroom. You can find lots of practical resources at The Best Resources For Applying "Fed Ex Days" (Also Known As "Genius Hours") To Schools.

Response From Rebecca Mieliwocki

Rebecca Mieliwocki is the 2012 California and National Teacher of the Year. After teaching middle and high school for 20 years, Rebecca is currently working as a teacher on special assignment for Burbank Unified School District specializing in professional development and induction activities for secondary level educators. She is a huge believer that kids and their teachers can do better and be better every day:

Before I offer an answer, I just have to share how transformative Genius Hour was for my teaching, my students and my classroom, and me. If you have any way at all of trying this, even if it becomes a Genius Week or a daily Genius Minute, please DO it.  You won't regret it. I promise.

I have always cared about creating a student-centered classroom where there were choices for kids, tiered assignments, circling back and re-teaching for strugglers, and opportunities to stretch.  However, even with all of this baked in to my teaching, I struggled to get 100 percent engagement from my students until Genius Hour.  After hearing all of the buzz and success stories from friends and colleagues who were trying it, I decided to wade in myself.

Every Friday for an entire semester, I would turn over the reins of research, learning, and doing to my 7th grade students.  We began by spending three class periods introducing the concept of Genius Hour and self-directed learning, having them select some of their personal passions, and then narrowing it down to a focus question about one of those areas that they'd like to spend 17 more hours exploring.  To excite them about the idea I shared several TED talks by young people who have set out to change the world by small, simple acts that anyone could do.  I wanted them to feel empowered by the freedom to choose what to work on, not afraid.  Focus questions had to be approved by three people (two classmates and myself) before they were set free to the discovery phase.  Questions could not be Google-able, could not be yes or no questions, and finding the answer required about 15 hours of thinking, work, and research.  In other words, focus questions were tricky and needed to be just right in order to propel this project. 

Once their focus question was approved, students came to class each Friday, took out their Genius folders, grabbed an iPad from our cart, and began work.  Each Friday would find my students engaged in different activities such as reading, researching, testing, drawing, building, or practicing.  Depending on the stage of their work, I might have 36 different kids doing 36 different things.  About five minutes before the period ended, they had to log their activity for the day and list one next step they'd need to accomplish before the next work session.  Three times per semester, I'd send out a blog question about their progress through our KidBlog site, and they'd have to formulate a 250 word written response.  Parents, administrators, their classmates and I could all view and comment on student blog responses.  These short and medium-sized written bits received marks in the gradebook.

With three weeks left to go in the semester, students began learning about the various ways they could present their journey, with one mandatory component being the use of digital tools.  I made it clear on day one that success was to be found in the journey.  Whether they accomplished what they set out to or not, it was more important that they shared their process, their progress, and then whatever outcomes they feel they did achieve.  We wanted to follow their journey, not just see them at their finish line.  What followed was two weeks of shared individual learning & discoveries that blew me away.  My students learned to sew, to play guitar, to code video games, to speak a foreign language, to make a short film, and 31 other unique things.  The student with the short film was invited to Comic Con in San Diego last year to present it at the Kids' Festival there.  Wow!  I couldn't believe how an idea so simple as letting kids loose to learn on their own could reap such invigorating, meaningful, and inspiring rewards.  During the presentations, students wrote constructive feedback and asked probing questions of one another, and by the end of the term, kids implored me to promise we'd do it again in the spring.  We sure did, and I can't imagine teaching without Genius Hour ever again.

Hopefully this story inspires YOU to give it a try.  I have colleagues who couldn't commit to a full semester and just devoted a week to individual, focused inquiry.  Another teacher I know kicks off the week with a Genius Minute where she shares discoveries and innovations from the world outside the classroom and challenges students to be this kind of thinker/doer/maker in their own lives.  They bring in and share their own experiences and discoveries periodically throughout the year. 

The keys to a successful Genius Hour experience are threefold:

1) You as the classroom leader MUST be comfortable loosening your grip on the period.  Instead of driving what happens, you are facilitating what your students need from you moment to moment.  This can be hard for control freaks (like me) but so, so good for us.  It allows us to exercise that guide-on-the-side muscle we really need to strengthen. 

2) Access to regular technology is not necessary, but is extremely helpful.  Whether you have a cart, a lab, or allow kids to use their smart phones, technology truly helps kids be able to make the most of the time you spend on Genius Hour at school.

3) Managing so many different kids working on so many different kinds of projects can be taxing, so organization and flexibility are keys.  Using logs, tracking systems, and routine check-ins with kids will help keep them and you on the right track and heading for more successful outcomes than if you just let kids completely go.  You want to make sure that every kid has something to share by the end of the term, so keeping on top of where they are at and what you can do to help them reach the next step is very important.

Ultimately, all of us came away from our Genius Hour experience deeply fulfilled.  I saw my students plunge into learning with their whole hearts and minds.  I saw them read, write, research, think, hypothesize, communicate, problem-solve, build-all 21st century skills.  All I had to do was give them the opportunity and then get out of the way.  I know we all say what amazing things kids can do when given a chance, but there are only a select few teachers who are truly comfortable giving students the special kind of experience Genius Hour creates for them.  I hope you are one of them. 

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Response From Gallit Zvi & Denise Krebs

Denise Krebs lives in the Kingdom of Bahrain and teaches English to fifth grade geniuses. Gallit Zvi has experience teaching students in 4th - 7th grades. She is currently a Learning Support teacher and Vice Principal in Surrey, BC. Denise and Gallit are the authors of "The Genius Hour Guidebook: Fostering Passion, Inquiry and Wonder in the Classroom":

We love Genius Hour and so do our students, but over the years we have learned that it pays to introduce Genius Hour well, so we are glad that you asked this question! In Chapter 3 of our book, "The Genius Hour Guidebook," we go into this exact question with much more detail, but here is a quick overview:

Step 1: Get Inspired

Before you can help inspire your students, you need to get inspired! We hope you will research and really see the possibilities for learning in your classroom—learning that transforms the culture in your class.

Things changed in our classrooms when we realized the teacher is not primarily a dispenser of knowledge, but a partner with students in learning. We hope you already have an active and expanding learning environment and Genius Hour is your next step. If not, be sure to check out what others are doing and discussing. We recommend following the #geniushour hashtag. Watch videos of students working in Genius Hour. Ask questions.

Then, you will be ready to inspire your students. Here are three ways that have worked well for us, as well as for other Genius Hour teachers:

Lead a discussion with students:

  1. What do you love to learn and do?

  2. What would you create if you had no limits?

  3. Use discussion starters that begin with "What if...?" and "Imagine..."

Show the students inspirational videos:

  1. Caine's Arcade

  2. Creativity Takes Time

  3. Kid President Pep Talk

Read picture books to them:

  1. "The Most Magnificent Thing"

  2. "The Dot"

  3. "What Do You Do With an Idea?"

Step 2: Brainstorm Ideas

Some teachers encourage students to brainstorm and record their questions and potential Genius Hour projects on post-it notes to add to a class Wonder Wall.  Others have students keep a wonder/passion journal.

If you want your students to think about a Genius Hour project that connects their passion with helping others, you might lead them in a heart mapping activity, as Karen MacMillan does with her students. They map their hearts by answering and recording their thoughts on these questions, such as: When it comes to helping people, what are you passionate about? What breaks your heart about your passions? How might these heartbreaks be fixed or improved? (You can see details and examples of following your heartbreak at Angela Maiers' site and Karen's original posts, Helping Students Choose2Matter, Part 1 and  Part 2).

Of course, Genius Hour isn't always about public service. Sometimes children want to learn more about their passions in Genius Hour because doing so lightens and enlightens their own hearts.  We believe that for Genius Hour, all ideas are on the table. We would encourage you to accept all brainstormed ideas and guide students in the next step as they find the inquiry question for their project.

Step 3: Create Inquiry Questions

The next step is for students to go ahead and come up with a plan for their Genius Hour projects. We recommend having students frame their projects with an open-ended inquiry question. This will help them stay focused during their project. For example, "Sports" as a topic is too broad and can lead to them spending their precious Genius Hour time wondering what to do, while "What characteristics do athletes have in common?" or "Since participation in sports is good for your mental and physical health, how can I help more people get involved in sports?" are much more focused.

We've had students explore everything from planet sounds and raising awareness about juvenile diabetes to writing novels and baking cakes. You'll be amazed what your students come up with when you give them unfettered time to wonder and create.

We hope that these tips help you implement a Genius Hour program with your students. However, please keep in mind what Parker J. Palmer says: "Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher" ("The Courage to Teach"). As educators, you will have to do it your way and make it your own, but these steps are the tried, tested and true ways that have worked for us and many others.

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Response From Yvette Jackson & Veronica McDermott

Yvette Jackson and Veronica McDermott are co-authors of "Aim High, Achieve More: How to Transform Urban Schools Through Fearless Leadership" (ASCD, 2012) and "Unlocking Student Potential: How do I identify and activate strengths?" (ASCD Arias, 2015).  Jackson is also the author of "Pedagogy of Confidence: Inspiring High Intellectual Performance in Urban Schools" (TC Press, 2011) and is the CEO of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education. McDermott is a retired superintendent, professional developer, and education consultant:

What Do Harry Potter, Values and Beliefs Have to Do with a "Genius Hour"?

When Harry Potter started school at Hogwarts, his teachers believed their job was to draw out his magical powers, powers Harry did not know he possessed. They devoted themselves to this task on a full-time basis, not only during a "Magic Hour."  If we believe that our job as educators is to draw out the genius all students possess, we, too, would devote ourselves to this task on a full-time basis, not only during a "Genius Hour."  Doing so is a statement of values, a willingness to invest deeply in what we believe, a desire to "gift" all of our students with the same high quality curriculum and pedagogical practices that are too often reserved for those labeled gifted.

"Gifting" all students is not far-fetched.  It's done regularly by teachers with high expectations for their students and who possess the confidence and competence to provide the supports students need in order to have their genius rise to the surface.  The High Operational Practices™ of the Pedagogy of Confidence® provide teachers with guidance in how to turn every learning and teaching hour into a genius hour. 

The seven High Operational Practices that make up the Pedagogy of Confidence encourage teachers to intentionally and fearlessly design lessons that identify and activate student strengths, build relationships, amplify student voice, elicit high intellectual performance, provide enrichment, integrate prerequisites for academic learning and situate learning in the lives of students. These seven practices work in conjunction with each other to create a new and all encompassing landscape for learning, one that occupies every part of the learning and teaching experience all day, everyday. When implemented faithfully and universally, these seven practices can transform classrooms and schools, increase student motivation and engagement, and result in students and teachers who exercise agency, feel energized, and become self-actualized (Jackson, 2011).

The High Operational Practice that jumpstarts this process is the first one: identifying and activating student strengths—the catalyst for eliciting personal strengths and the innate potential of students. Eliciting strengths is the antidote to the numbing impact of the deficit model that devalues potential by labeling underdeveloped skills as weaknesses and students as "low performers." Starting from strengths is a no cost, highly effective, non-traditional way of addressing persistent student underachievement that changes the composition of the brain and the culture of the school (Jackson & McDermott, 2015).

Leadership teams that fearlessly embrace the Pedagogy of Confidence start by affirming the promise of the magic of innate student potential for genius. They possess a vision that is inspiring. They put into place organizational and cultural supports that mediate movement form the current reality to the desired vision. In other words, they AIM high to achieve more (Jackson & McDermott, 2012).

The Pedagogy of Confidence starts from beliefs that ask different questions. Instead of asking how we can implement a genius hour, the Pedagogy of Confidence asks us to consider what would happen if we dramatically changed the way we think about, talk about, and interact with our students, especially those who are currently not thriving? What would happen if we re-oriented ourselves to believe that all students possess genius and we invested heavily in our commitment to draw out that genius? Our teaching would have a new sense of direction, every hour would be a genius hour, our students would experience the magic of having their potential released and realized—and none of this would require magic wands or incantations.

Jackson, Y. (2011) The Pedagogy of confidence: Inspiring high intellectual performances in urban schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Jackson, Y. & McDermott, V. (2012).  Aim high; achieve more: How to transform urban schools through fearless leadership. 

Jackson, Y & McDermott, V. (2015).  Unlocking student potential: How do I identify and activate student strengths?  Alexandria, VA:  ASCD.

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Response From Amy Sandvold

Amy Sandvold is an experienced educator in both private and public schools. She is co-author of the bestselling "The Passion Driven Classroom and The Fundamentals of Literacy Coaching." She currently practices her passion as a 3rd grade teacher for the Waterloo Community School District in Waterloo, Iowa. You can read her Teacher in Iowa blog and follow her on Twitter @TeacherinIowa:

Many of us have dictated schedules. How do we find time for a student-driven framework? The answer is all about MINDSET. With the right teacher mindset, we can have passion-driven classrooms that honor the strengths of each student, no matter the schedule.

A student-driven teacher mindset knows the difference between "DOING" genius hour vs. "BEING" geniuses. Even though it is referred to as a Genius "Hour", it is really how the teacher's mindset is focused on student strengths all day long. Sure, you can wait until this one hour and say to students, "OK! This is the only time of day that you get to BE your own geniuses." A teaching mindset that values students for who they are and what they care about is something that impacts every single curriculum area.

Student Mindset also need attention. Help students build resilience. One of the most challenging issues I find in the classroom is battling the "This-is-Hard!" syndrome. What they are really saying is "I don't want to do the work." When faced with a challenge many of our students need a resiliency boost. Students must have specific lessons from teachers in building resiliency. Making mistakes is ok and gets us one step closer to growing our minds. I remember this past year we had new students. Before long, the words "This is hard" were spoken. My students who had been there all year replied, "Oh no! Those are bad words in this classroom! You can try and do your best!" That was one of my favorite days of teaching   

Here are specific suggestions to get you started:

  • It is more important to have a strengths mindset all of the time than to have a one hour or one slot in the day in which we DO genius. If you can have both, even better.

  • Really commit. Without a commitment, we see genius hours and passion project time confusing to students. Once unleashed, students don't want to go back to the "old ways." They don't want to wait for their one hour or miss their one hour. This is very important to remember because teaching this way will change everything.

  • Give up some power. Think about all of the things you do as a teacher. Could your students be doing them instead, gaining valuable experiences? Students start building new strengths when they have opportunity. Assigning classroom jobs beyond line leader is a start. Let them BE responsible and have some of your other bigger-deal roles. Let them fail. Let them keep improving. This sends the message to students that you trust them and that they have strengths!

  • Learn student triggers. Every child has their learning triggers or things that they know and care a lot about.  Implement a mindset that although not every child can be a genius in the true sense of the word (Mensa, IQ, etc), every child IS passionate about something. Figure out what that is. This is their learning trigger.

  • Start a chart of each child's name and three boxes next to their name. As you get to know your students, really listen. The child that comes up to you every morning to tell you something is sharing their learning trigger (they may not realize it, but you can!) Some of these triggers may be positive things and some may be things that annoy them. If it annoys them, they are passionate about it and that is also information. Jot down what you hear them say. Over time, you will have a class learning portrait.

  • Build a "Can-Do attitude" with an enormous poster. If you know your students' triggers, you can use these to refocus them to face challenges. We must believe that they CAN and they WILL achieve. Learning is work. Work is good. Challenge is fun. It's not that they can't do it, they won't do it because it takes work. I put up a huge, obnoxious poster on the wall that has a red line drawn across the words, "I CAN'T...This is hard" and next to it these words, "Mistakes are Proof that I am Trying!"

We created The Passion Driven Classroom framework to help teachers find their passion-driven mindset and to become laser-like focused on what triggers their learners. Create opportunities to honor this in the school day. This is how we help students discover their genius. Teaching this way is a mindset, not just a one hour project!

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Response From Josh Patterson

Josh Patterson, PhD is the principal of Oakland Elementary School in Spartanburg, S.C. He is co-chair of the project-based learning action team with TransformSC, an ASCD Emerging Leader, and president-elect of South Carolina ASCD. Connect with Patterson on Twitter @ACE_Patterson:

Who invented the Hula Hoop? How do fish breath underwater? What was the Harlem Renaissance?  As any parent of a preschool—or elementary school-age—child can attest, children are born with a natural sense of curiosity.  It is this innate sense of wonder that will lead and support our students' lifelong journeys of discovery and learning.  As educators, we have a moral obligation to not only allow for our students' inquisitiveness, but to also foster and support this powerful, often untapped potential. One of the most effective strategies for promoting inquiry and student engagement is Genius Hour.

Kerry Gallagher, digital learning specialist at St. John's Preparatory School served as the opening keynote session of ISTE 2016. During her presentation she shared three considerations for inspiring students to engage in meaningful, engaging opportunities for personalized learning:

1) Start with an inspiring question.  If given the opportunity to research and uncover possible solutions or answers, students not only become relentlessly engaged but also passionately responsible for their own learning.  

2) Get the right supplies for the journey.  Depending on their age, ability, and interest, teachers will need to support students along a directed, guided, or open continuum of inquiry.  Whether it's an iPad, a variety of texts, chart paper, pencils, or a magnifying glass, consider what tools your students will need to successfully further their exploration.  

3) Embark on the lesson - and give them room to find their own way.  If we truly desire our students to become lifelong learners, we must acknowledge that promoting learning through questioning is not enough.  Students must have the opportunity to not only ask questions, but also enjoy the space to explore, discover, and uncover their innate inquisitiveness.

To start the process of Genius Hour, teachers must provide the necessary space and time for students to explore an identified topic of interest. If you feel constrained by the curriculum or pacing, provide students with a set list of people or topics found within your grade level's standards.  Genius Hour can also be incorporated within an integrated unit of study.  These possibilities allow educators to remain closely tethered to the curriculum while providing time and space for their students' individual interests and inquiries.  For students in younger grades, educators may need to teach the skill of crafting a well developed question (i.e. open vs. closed, thick vs. thin).  Building a student's prior knowledge of a particular topic may also be a consideration. 

Once a question is determined, a teacher must decide how and when to provide the necessary time for students to research. Student age and general cognitive ability should be considered when determining an amount of time.  A teacher may also need to model the research process or establish parameters for students to explore.  Again, this will depend on the grade level. Symbaloo.com, a service that allows you to bookmark multiple sites, and Kiddle, a kid-friendly search engine, are two easy-to-navigate resources for teachers seeking to begin Genius Hour.  Another resource to promote student inquiry is Wonderopolis.com. Students can utilize Wonderopolis to research information related to their selected topic.  Finally, after research is complete, students must determine how the answer or solution will be shared.  Teachers should encourage students to be creative in communicating their answer or solution.

When students are given ownership of their learning through investigation and discovery, they not only guide their own learning but also become the expert within their own unique community of learners.  Genius Hour, at its core, should not lead students to become passive consumers; rather, this unique instructional approach should encourage students to become passionate generators of information and knowledge.

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Response From Maurice J. Elias

Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D., is Director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab. He is also author of the e-book, Emotionally Intelligent Parenting  and The Other Side of the Report Card:  Assessing Students' Social, Emotional, and Character Development (2016, Corwin):

There has been a lot of talk lately about implementing a "Genius Hour" with students.  Here is my take on it. Every student has genius. And time should be set aside to celebrate the genius of every student. It does not require a single hour; it's something that can and should be scheduled throughout the school year. You can celebrate two students a week, half hour each; you can celebrate a student each day for 15 minutes—use your imaginations!

My suggestion is that you frame a Genius Hour in terms of Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences model. Gardner was interested to see if all cultures defined intelligence in terms of language arts and mathematical skills the way our Western educational culture seems to. Of course, he knew the answer would be, "No." What Gardner also found is that there are physiological and specifically neurological bases for the different kinds of intelligence he identified—intelligences that collectively are essential for humanity and civilization, with some being emphasized by some cultures more than others.

The eight multiple intelligences (MI) Gardner has identified are:  Linguistic, Logical-Mathematical, Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, and Spiritual. There are formal ways to assess your students' multiple intelligences strengths, and Thomas Armstrong has created some of the best, practical materials. But you are likely to know your students' relative MI preferences pretty well.

Students learn well through their strengths and an opportunity to use their strengths can leverage a greater willingness to work on areas of weakness or learning difficulty. That is the importance of celebrating their strengths. Some students can go through a school day—in fact, many school days—without feeling a sense of celebration or accomplishment. A "Genius Hour" is and should be about recognizing things our students are good at and sharing them with classmates, making it clear that there is no hierarchy of intelligences, only multiple intelligences.

You can introduce the Genius Hour—or whatever you choose to all itby introducing MI and asking students to identify what they think their strengths are—indeed, expanding their view of what a strength is. You can also have students share geniuses they admire, who display particular MI strengths.

An ongoing celebration of student strengths—or genius—represents finding windows into the soul of children and ways to reach them in powerful and meaningful ways. When students are working within their areas of MI strength, they are able to mobilize confidence and enjoyment in ways that can be cut off if they are "off-modality."  Thus, it becomes vital for students to have opportunities to be recognized for—and to perform and learn in—their preferred modalities. 

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Thanks to Rebecca, Gallit, Denise, Yvette, Veronica, Amy, Josh, and Maurice for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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