Genius Hour-Learning From My Mistakes

I took the plunge and started Genius Hour this year in my eleventh grade English classes.  The last year, I’d been reading about it all over Twitter, talking to other teachers about it and wondering how it would work.  Then, at the end of last school year, my teacher friend Cara asked me if I’d heard of Genius Hour and got me on board to try it this year.  Then came a flurry of looking up information (mostly on Twitter, thank you, PLN!), creating resources and having many conversations about how to really make this work realistically in a high school classroom.  I can honestly say, four months into it, Genius Hour has changed the way I teach.

Basically, I allow my students every Friday (or the last day of the week) to work on their individual projects.  This includes completing research, creating and presenting genre pieces (pictures, written reflection of process, drawings, etc), talking with their program teachers (we are a career/tech school) and discussing ideas with others.  The end project will be a TED-Talk inspired talk about their process, successes, failures and overall final product(s) given in the lecture hall to not only their English class, but other classes, and I plan on inviting outside audience members as well to ensure an authentic presenting experience.  Students are also required to have a 15 source Annotated Bibliography of resources which helped them in creating their projects this year and they will write a Reflective Writing Piece, all of which will be their final semester exam.  While I originally envisioned Fridays being a day to just “let students go”, I have to admit (a bit sheepishly), that this did not go as planned the first few times I tried it and became an exercise in frustration; hence, my adding more structure to Genius Hour.  Honestly, students are not used to having complete freedom in a classroom, so we, as teachers, must guide them to that place where they can be independent and self-motivated learners, otherwise, many do not know what to do in that type of situation.  I looked at it as another “teachable moment” for both me and my students, not as a “failed lesson”.

So, here are the top five “things” I’ve learned about Genius Hour in the last four months of implementing Genius Hour, making mistakes and tweaking my approach:

1.  Spend many weeks allowing students to explore interests and passions before deciding on a Genius Hour Project to which they will commit.  I was amazed at how many students told me they had no hobbies or were not curious about different things and were not sure what they wanted to learn about.  That both saddened me and made me realize how much this type of Project-Based Learning is needed in an educational culture of standardized testing and regurgitation of easily-forgotten knowledge.  Students need to be intrinsically motivated to learn and do-it’s slowly being stripped from students!  So, the more time they have to explore project ideas, the better.  Chris Kesler has a great blog to help teachers get started, with many resources, project ideas, etc.:

Another idea to help students gather ideas is to use a Google Form; here is the one I used in the beginning-feel free to use it or tweak it for your needs:

2.  Add some structure to your Genius Hour Days.  It took me awhile to be okay with this because it was not what I imagined when I originally had visions of Genius Hour dancing through my head.  I expected excited, motivated and bright-eyed students scurrying around the room with their iPads, finding relevant resources and information, having in-depth discussions with other students about their project ideas and creating genre pieces which would rival Picasso or Michelangelo.  Not surprisingly, that’s exactly what did not what happen.  Instead, I had a roomful of students who saw it as free time and as such, I heard many conversations about Friday night’s football game or many requests to see a picture of a Homecoming dress on a phone.  I love the dress and I really hope you win the game, but it’s time to work…the funny thing is, they didn’t know what to work on.  I did not provide enough explanation nor structure to allow them the creativity to work.  Completely my fault, but a learning opportunity for me and I changed it to make it work for everyone.  So, I have a “plan” or a “goal” for each Friday.  For example, one Friday, a genre piece posted on their social media site might be due to present to the class (a picture of a cake they tried making, a drawing of an album cover, etc.), a resource or two may be due on the Annotated Bibliography, or a reflective piece may be written.  Each Friday is different, but it still allows for creativity within some structure.  I now find as each week goes by, students are getting more and more comfortable with being independent and are not relying on me as much for encouragement or ideas, which shows a growth of confidence.

3.  Really structure the research componentI love my students, but they are terrible researchers.  We all know the drill; we ask students to research “global warming” and they Google it, click on the first link, throw it on their Works Cited page without reading it, and are done.  This is something else I did not think through when I asked students to work on a 15 source Annotated Bibliography throughout this process of creating their Genius Hour Project.  Students did not know what to research because I had not given them enough time to create research questions, nor did they understand the plethora of resources beyond Google (such as Twitter, apps, interviews, etc).  First, I taught students how to use Twitter and social media as a resource (they were shocked and amazed until I showed them MLA recognizes these as genuine sources and we practiced citing a tweet together as a class). Then, I had a brainstorm one day and it seems to be effective:  Have students use Bloom’s Taxonomy to create and answer research questions from the resources they find and add the question and answer as a part of their annotation.  This is the form I used to help students write these questions, again, feel free to use it or change it as needed:

These question cues give students a guide when trying to decide what it is they are learning from this process and forces them to truly read and re-read a source to make sure it is relevant and helps to answer one of the questions they have.  In the process, it is making them perfect and master the research process, which applies to many other skills in school and life.  And hello, CCSS-this has you written all over it!

4.  Use social media as a component of Genius Hour-have students post and write about their genre pieces to ensure an authentic audience.  I originally was going to have all students create a blog to chart and reflect on their progress throughout the year.  Then I felt it was too structured; why would I force students to blog if that’s not what they love to do?  Isn’t the point of blogging to create an authentic audience and why can’t other forms of social media serve the same purpose?  Instead, I told students they could use any form of social media they wanted, including Twitter, Instagram, Google Sites, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, WordPress, etc.  They got to choose how they wanted to showcase their genre pieces and their written reflection, but they had to use social media to do so unless their parents were against it and if so, we would come up with another solution.  Honestly, I had no issues or concerns from parents on this and it gave us an opportunity to discuss netiquette and how not to ruin their chances for college scholarships and other future opportunities by posting dumb and inappropriate things online (again, another “teachable moment”)!

The fun part about this has been how excited kids get when people “follow” them or they get positive feedback on their social media site.  After posting a genre piece, I have kids saying, “Mrs. Polen, I got five ‘likes’ on my picture” and other similar comments.  Funny, they don’t get that excited when I ‘like’ or ‘comment’ on a paper they’ve written (about which I always remind them to the response of rolled eyeballs or a giggle). But, it shows the importance of that authentic audience; it creates a sense of confidence and motivation to do and be better.  Love it!  That’s why students are in school…

5.  Show inspirational videos at the beginning of Genius Hour Days. This has become my favorite way to start a Genius Hour Friday because it’s motivating and inspirational and allows students to see why we are doing Genius Hour.  There are so many out there, and you can choose based on time and topic, but here are my two favorite resources:

*23 Videos that Sparked Genius Hour:

*15 Inspiring TED Talks Every Freshman Should Watch:

If time permits, this may be a good opportunity to incorporate a TodaysMeet talk or a Twitter chat based on the video.  I especially like to do this during TED Talks, since they are a bit longer and it gives all students, especially my introverted students, a chance to discuss and reflect on Genius Hour.

That’s it for now, but I hope to write again at the conclusion of the year to add to this list of mistakes and reflections that go along with implementing Genius Hour into my curriculum.  I hope to continually grow and change Genius Hour as I become more comfortable with it as a teacher and a facilitator.  As a final note, I have also created a blog to document my students’ progress and to let parents know what we are doing in class; feel free to check it out if interested:

Best of luck as you jump into the creative, chaotic, exciting and scary world of Genius Hour!











6 thoughts on “Genius Hour-Learning From My Mistakes

    • Thanks, Stephanie! Would love to hear what you are doing with your blended learning class. Also, Kent loved having you guys at his school this week-nothing better than teachers providing professional development to teachers!

  1. pslozak says:

    Thanks for posting, I had my class create projects using Genius Hour last year and I am getting ready to do so again this year. I was unable to see the Google forms mentioned in your post. Can you help me do so?

  2. The first google form you posted (under point number 1) says I need permission. Is there anyway you could share this with me? Thanks so much for posting this!!

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