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!
I’ve been doing Genius Hour for several years with my gifted and talented students in 3rd-5th grades. Yet, every year I end up thinking that I could have facilitated it better. Because I want to keep improving, I’ve documented some of my ups and downs on my Genius Hour Resources page. It helps to look back at some of those posts and remind myself that Genius Hour doesn’t always go well and that I’ve come a long way from my first Genius Hour attempt – when my 5th graders rewarded me with blank stares after I announced they could study anything they wanted.
Yes, Genius Hour sucks sometimes. There are some days I dread it because I know the chaos will drain all of my energy, or because I just can’t think of any other way to explain how to summarize research without copying, or because everyone will have a Genius-Hour-Emergency-that-only-Mrs. Eichholz-can-handle at exactly the same time, or because a student will refuse to believe me when I say that no one wants to read 1000 words in tiny text on a slide that is going to be read out loud anyway, or because I have to keep repeating, “Yes, I know you are passionate about meat [or other randomly chosen topic], but how will you convince your audience that they should care?”
So, I try to remind myself of all of the obstacles we’ve already overcome, that the students will become more independent if they are given more opportunities to practice being independent, and that we are all learning. A lot.
The other day I felt a bit defeated because I realized I was wrong when I thought I had figured the solution to getting more substance out of the presentations rather than fluff. A few students did practice presentations for a “focus group” of peers, and my heart sank when it became apparent that, once again, the fluff far outweighed the stuff.
During a break, I quickly Googled student Genius Hour presentation videos online to see if I could find an exemplar to give the students. As I watched several videos, I realized that they also didn’t meet my expectations.
The logical conclusion? My expectations are too high. I was being too hard on these kids. After all, what did I expect – a TED Talk?
Whew! What a relief.
I came home and started preparing my next blog post, looking up some articles I’ve bookmarked on Pocket.
I have done a lot of what Eric White suggests. I am creating rites of passage, critiquing the critiques, etc… But this is where I need to dig in and keep going – not give up. Yes, I have high expectations. Yes, it may take several rewrites and rehearsals for the groups to meet my expectations. After watching Eric’s video of the student who had revised several times, I see it is worth it. The sense of pride she felt when she met those high expectations was visibly joyful.
So, if Genius Hour isn’t working for you, and you feel somehow guilty that you aren’t doing it right, you are not alone. Maybe we are the only two teachers in the world having trouble with it, but at least you know there is someone else out there who questions its worth. I can also tell you, though, that I’ve seen it work. That’s why I keep trying and why I think you should, too.