The single most impactful adjustment I made to my curriculum in the later decades of my teaching career was to make room for students to work on issues they chose that were interesting and relevant to them. This was scary for me because I never had any idea where the year would lead me. But I learned so much along with the students that the risks I took and mistakes I made were definitely worthwhile. One year, my small 3rd grade class decided to investigate overfishing for their Genius Hour project. (I always did a group Genius Hour project with my 3rd graders because it was their first year doing major research in Gifted and Talented, and my classes in that grade level were generally tiny.) If you had asked me at the beginning of the year about my interest in overfishing on a scale of 1-5, I would have said 0. But these students were all passionate about the ocean, and that is where their interest took us. Weeks into their research, I was just as committed and concerned as they were – especially after our Skype session with a journalist covering the issue.
From that project to many others that I could describe where students were making plans to solve real-life problems, the message was clear – when students see the value of their work, they are much more engaged and ultimately become more empowered. This is where the Design for Change website could help you. Instead of starting from scratch as my students and I did, you can begin with a framework that is chosen by your students. With racial justice, educational equity, and climate change as the three main topics to select from, they can then find out more from podcasts and other materials that have been curated to guide them on paths toward making positive contributions toward our world as they learn. Whether you want to do a long-term unit, or focus on “Empathy Warmups,” “Design Sprints,” or “Community Action” individually, the free resources on this website – including a teacher platform to monitor progress – will give you much more support than I ever had when my students initially began passion projects.
Though we can’t always do this in education, I found that engagement comes quicker if you start from a place a student already values rather than working to convince a student, “this is what you should value.” But students often need to investigate a bit to realize what is important to them, and this is where Design for Change can help.
Alexis Lewis is a teenage inventor who is on a mission to inspire other teens to innovate. You can read her story, and about the products she has invented so far in her young life, here. Alexis specifically wants middle schools to guide students with inventing curriculum, and has launched a website to help in this endeavor. Inventing 101 is a good start as a repository of resources with this end in mind. You can also visit her personal website to learn more about other teen inventors on this page
The amazing @tersonya (Sonya Terborg) shared an incredible tool on Twitter the other day that I think a lot of readers of this blog will like. It is called, “The Unit Planning Game.” Based on the 17 Global Goals adopted by UN delegates in 2015, “The Unit Planning Game” will help educators and independent learners develop a framework for a project based on interest.
Users are first directed to choose from one of the 17 goals. For example, I chose, “Gender Equality.” Next up is the chance to select a “Solutions” card. Finally, three Standards cards can be designated. (Currently, the standards are fairly generic, in the areas of reading, writing, and math.)
After all of the choices have been made, the user clicks on, “Generate Unit Plan,” and a customized three-stage unit will appear. It includes an Essential Question (for my example, the question was, “How might we change perception to make things more equal for boys and girls?”), potential performance assessments, and links to resources.
“The Unit Planning Game” is provided by Participate, and you can get even more ideas from its Project Based Learning page titled, “Teach the Global Goals.”
One of my colleagues pointed out a couple of weeks ago that Instructables offers free classes on many “makerspace” related topics, such as laser cutting, mold making, and 3d design. I’ve used the site for a few DIY projects, but never knew I could dig deeper with these lessons. I plan to investigate several of these for my own studies, and now I know that I can also refer some of my students to the site, especially if they want to learn more about something I may not have tried yet. It’s a good resource for DIY’ers, educators, and students.
For her Genius Hour project, one of my 5th grade students questioned what the world would be like without creativity. Since she used Scratch for last year’s project (on Sleepwalking), I told her that she needed to present her information in a different way, but that she could still use Scratch for part of her project. Whereas she used Scratch to give her information about her topic last year, she decided to use Animaker this year. However, she chose to use Scratch for the “interactive” portion of her presentation (I always insist that there be a part that involves the audience), and blew me away with the complexity of her game. She designed “Creativity Land,” which includes five interactive games that help students learn the information she gave in her videos. This. Was. Not. For. A. Grade. She did this purely out of her love for learning and creating. English is her second language – maybe third, because imagination is certainly her first.
If you don’t do Genius Hour with your students, you are missing out on something amazing. And so are your students.
One of the biggest changes I made to our Genius Hour projects this year was to insist that the students do practice presentations for small audiences before they do the “real thing” – kind of like the “Alpha Testing” often used on products before they go on to “Beta Testing” and then full release. In the past, my students have always given one presentation, and this was the summation of their learning. After watching Austin’s Butterfly last year, I realized that this was unfair to all of us. Even though the students were getting peer and teacher feedback throughout the Genius Hour process, their final products were, well, FINAL. A most of those final products had room for improvement. Some of them had mansions of rooms for improvement…
A few weeks ago, I wrote, “What to do when Genius Hour Sucks,” because some of the practice presentations deeply disappointed me. Now, many of my students are ready to try again after making revisions based on class feedback, and I’m not feeling defeated anymore. They really took the suggestions that were made to heart, and have shown great improvement. A few of them are ready to share with a bigger audience – classmates in their homerooms, students in younger grades, administrators, and parents. Some of them will need to do a third practice, but have still made great strides.
It’s kind of incredible to see students make such an effort – particularly when they are not graded on these projects. I believe they are motivated by their interests in the topics they chose, and by the knowledge that people outside their usual sphere will be viewing their presentations. I also believe that our systematic feedback and time for multiple opportunities to practice has made a huge difference. In school we often tell students what they could have done to improve – and then give them no time to try out those improvements.
Want to see one of the student products? Here is a Scratch presentation that one of my 4th graders did on sleepwalking. (She did a verbal introduction to our class, telling a personal story about why this topic was important to her.) Just press the green flag, and you will see what she came up with. Her product has been Alpha and Beta tested, and is now ready to share with the world!