Yes! Genius Hour Can Work In A High School Classroom.

Genius Hour 2My passion for Genius Hour started last summer. I learned of it earlier, but it wasn’t until I came across resources created and curated by A.J. Juliani, Joy Kirr and Gallit Zvi that I became truly inspired.

However, despite my inspiration, I was concerned. Many of the resources that I uncovered focused on its use in elementary schools. Could Genius Hour work in a high school classroom? I wanted to bring 20% Time, Passion Projects and Genius Hour to my classroom, but what would that look like?

What is Genius Hour?

If you’re not familiar with Genius Hour, it is a project inspired by Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s Montessori School Experience. Every Google employee spends 20% of their time working on projects that are of interest to them. By 2009, 50% of all Google products, including Gmail, emerged during this 20% time. Similarly, these types of projects have worked wonders for students in the classroom. If you are interested in learning more about the steps that I used in this project, please check out my Genius Hour presentation created for an EdTech conference. Also, here is the link to the Genius Hour Website assignment that I created (including rubrics). In this blog, I focus on how Genius Hour can be achieved in a high school classroom, and what I learned from the experience. 

Bringing Genius Hour to the High School Classroom

Do not expect a standing ovation when you introduce the idea

When I first introduced Genius Hour the reaction was mixed. Some students rushed to talk to me about it immediately after class – brimming with ideas. Others were very nervous about the freedom. Still others were concerned about writing blogs and/or creating vlogs for a public audience.

However, what struck me most was that many of my students stated this was the first time they had been asked what they wanted to learn in school. These were students in Grade 12 (17-18 years old). Some were excited and some were scared. Yet, I truly believed that this project could empower my students and give them ownership over their own learning. I told them this and promised to help them every step of the way, and this alleviated a lot of concerns.

Rethink the Role of Student and Teacher in your Classroom

My students engaged in a lot of projects that I knew little about. At times, this made me uneasy. I truly became the guide on the side. I was not the ‘expert’ in the class. The students were the ‘experts’ and they were teaching me, while I assisted them in their inquiry process. I had to learn to give up control. This project wasn’t about me, it was about them.

Focus on Process not Product

I spent a lot of time on process as opposed to product. This included – creating essential questions, an elevator pitch and blogs/vlogs. I concentrated on research and inquiry skills as well as tips for oral and written communication. I did not spend time on product. All of their products were different, and there was no way I could teach 30 different product styles – nor should I. One of my students built a car (after researching the evolution of cars and technology over time), another built a model of the Blue Mosque, still another created a website supporting women in the Arts and another created a documentary on the history of Witchcraft, whereas another did a murder mystery. I focused on teaching them ‘how to think, not what to think’, and the results were incredible.

Think of this project as a road trip not a destination

If you’ve ever been on a great road trip, you know the best parts are usually the detours. This is the same thing with Genius Hour. My students created an essential question and presented their elevator pitch to the class, but their projects often changed along the way. They were very nervous about this, “Ms, is it okay that I want to change my focus?” My answer was always, “Yes.” This was a passion driven project and it evolved along with their learning. Allowing them this freedom required me to take a step back, and I am so glad that I did.

This Is NOT the Solution to all of your teaching problems

I experienced increased engagement, more critical thinking, student centred learning and closer relationships with my students.  However, this project did not run perfectly. Joy Kirr wrote once on twitter that with Genius Hour you can expect about 80/20 results. I would say in my class that I generally experienced this. Most of my students fell in love with their projects – even if they were hesitant in the beginning. Others struggled with the freedom. They really wanted to ‘get the right answer’ or ‘meet my expectations.’ In the future, I hope to more effectively address these fears in my classroom. Like the students, I am learning and hopefully improving as I go.

You might actually ENJOY MARKING & BE EXCITED to go to class

Like most teachers, a stack of essays to mark is not my idea of a fun weekend. However, with Genius Hour, I was honestly excited to read what my students were creating. I looked forward to their blogs/vlogs and enjoyed commenting on each one. Every student’s project was different, personal and engaging. I became a student in my own classroom. I was excited to go to class. I looked forward to discussing their work with them. My questions were genuine – I truly wanted to know what they discovered.

Overall, Genius Hour was an incredible experience for me. I am continually brainstorming ways to use it in my other classes. This experience taught me that as high school teachers we need to stop putting limits on what we think is appropriate for the high school classroom. Our goal is to empower our students, and we should use every tool in our toolbox to achieve this purpose. If we want our students to take risks in our classroom – we need to model this ourselves. 

Suggested resources for further reading: 

Launch

The Genius Hour Guidebook

Shift This

5 Innovative Approaches To Ignite Student Voice

 

5 Innovative Approaches to Ignite Student Voice

Create a class YouTube Playlist.

YouTube

I LOVE YouTube. As a teacher this love has turned into my obsession with creating and curating YouTube playlists for my classes. YouTube lets you organize videos into themes and categories and compiles them all into one link that you can share with your students via Google Classroom or your class website. YouTube Playlists are powerful tools for igniting and supporting student voice.

I challenge my students to find videos that we can add to our class playlist and/or to share  videos that inspire or interest them. You can also feature student videos on your YouTube channel. Over the years, my YouTube Playlists continually develop and change to reflect/support not only my course content, but also the interests and learning needs of my students. As an added bonus, the students are researching and making critical choices about their selections and synthesizing their findings. If you are interested in learning how to create a YouTube playlist check out: Create & manage playlists.  

Genius Hour, 20% Time, Passion Projects – call it whatever you want – just do it .

This year I engaged in Genius Hour with my Grade 12s and Heritage Fair projects with my Grade 10s. For both projects, students create an essential question on a topic that interests them, engage in research, create a 90 second elevator pitch and create a final product and presentation they share with the class.

These projects truly ignited student voice in my classes. The students came up with topics that I never would have thought of. Also, the medium and style that they used to present their project highlighted each student’s talents and passions. One student created a website to inspire women in the arts, another tackled Islamophobia and the impact this has on her life, still another researched the history of LGBTQ rights and presented it as a spoken word winning the York Region Human Rights Award. Ultimately, these projects allowed me to learn from my students and share their passion. If you want to ignite student voice, try out Genius Hour. Be sure to check out amazing resources by: Joy Kirr, AJ Juliani and Gallit Zvi to help you get started.

Have Difficult Conversations

Too often in our classes, we avoid ‘controversial’ topics.  Rather than avoidance, it is our job to equip and support students with the tools to discuss these topics. Two tools that I use are this Google slides presentation I created: Difficult Conversations and this comic by the Oatmeal You’re not going to believe what I have to tell you that looks at the brain research behind why we have visceral reactions to controversial issues. In today’s world, it is so important that we equip our students with the tools they need to critically think and openly discuss their viewpoints and beliefs.

Value & Incorporate Student Interests  

Many of my students are interested in video games. One student told me that I could teach most of our unit on Ancient Greece through the video game Civilizations. At the time, I wasn’t familiar with the game. I asked the student if he could bring in the game, show it to us and explain how I could incorporate it into my teaching. He came back with one of the most engaging and thoroughly prepared history lessons I have ever experienced, and I left hooked on the game as well as his ideas. (P.S. There is a Civilizations Edu version coming out in the fall, so he was clearly a visionary ahead of his time).

Basically, as educators we need to step back and let our students share their interests, value them and look for ways that we can incorporate them into our teaching. If we want our students to have a voice in our classroom their passions need to be reflected in the learning environment and the pedagogical choices that we make.

Build Student-Teacher Relationships

One of my previous blogs discussed strategies for improving student-teacher relationships. I can’t stress how important this is. Ultimately, if we want our students to be vocal in our classrooms they need to know that their traditions, beliefs and opinions are valued – full stop. More than anything they need to feel safe and supported in our classroom. If you want to ignite student voice in your classroom, you better be prepared to value and protect it.