Long ago – during the first semester – my GT 3rd graders decided that they wanted to do their Genius Hour project on volcanoes. (My 3rd grade class is only 3 students this year, so they are doing their project together.) To narrow things down, we decided to learn more about shield volcanoes. Specifically, Kilauea.
You can probably see where this is going. After months of research, writing a script for a newscast, dealing with many device issues and lost footage, we finally had everything together.
Then Kilauea erupted.
Actually, of course, Kilauea has been erupting. For years. But in the last few weeks it has been more insistent on being noticed. A neighborhood needed to be evacuated because lava flowed into it, and the toxic fumes aren’t too hospitable either. In addition, more violent eruptions may happen in the near future.
Our video needed to be rewritten and re-filmed. Again. The students, of course, wanted to keep all of their “humorous” sections. I wanted to make sure it didn’t look like we were making light of a serious situation that has caused Hawaii’s governor to declare a State of Emergency.
The Global Digital Citizen Foundation has a page of resources on its website that includes the free Critical Thinking Cheatsheet. The downloadable PDF has excellent question stems that students can use when trying to analyze a topic more effectively. You can see a sampling of the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How questions stems in the image below.
You will need to register on the site before you can receive your download. However, there are several other free resources that you can also access once you login, so it is well worth taking 30 seconds to sign up.
I plan to give this sheet to all of my students so they can use it to understand current events better. A great site this could be “smashed” with is Newsela.
Last week I mentioned that one of the best parts of attending ISTE is meeting up with people who share our desire to make school amazing for our students. One of those people is Andi McNairan (@mcnairan3).
Until recently, Andi taught gifted students (she now works for a regional service center), and also integrated Genius Hour into her classroom. We would touch base with each other to share ideas, read each other’s blogs, and try to meet up at TCEA whenever we could.
Andi recently published a book, called, Genius Hour: Passion Projects that Ignite Innovation and Student Inquiry. In the book, and in her ISTE presentation, Andi talks about the “6 P’s of Genius Hour”: Passion, Presentation, Pitch, Product, Project, and Plan. At ISTE, Andi went over some of the tech tools that have helped her students in each of these areas. For example, she provides the students with QR codes for each of the phases. They can scan these and instantly be on a web page that gives instructions and resources for that phase. Because Andi also thinks that reflection is vital, she gives the students a QR code that leads to Tony Vincent’s reflection generator – which offers a randomly selected reflection question each time you visit the page.
Do you have students who have difficulty coming up with topics for Genius Hour? Andi suggests using A.J. Juliani’s “Passion Bracket” to help them brainstorm. On one side, students brainstorm things that they love, and on the other they think about things that bother them. By the time they reach the middle, narrowing down favorites, they have potential topics for research.
A favorite tool of Andi’s that I keep meaning to try is Trello. Trello can be used by the individual students to keep track of their own progress, but it can also be used by the instructor to determine what phase each student is currently working on. The name blocks under each category can be easily dragged to a new column.
Andi and I are both keen on students interviewing outside experts for their projects. To find those experts, she suggests using Nepris, which matches classroom teachers with industry experts for video conferences. Like many edtech companies these days, Nepris has limited free options and a subscription option. One great tip that I learned from Andi is to have the students record their interviews, so they don’t have to take notes. This frees them up to look at the person they are conferencing with, and to pay attention to the topics. She also mentioned that she has the students prioritize their questions before the interview in case not everything can be covered during their 30 minute time period.
You can find out more about Andi’s extremely helpful tips by visiting her website – appropriately titled, A Meaningful Mess – or purchasing her book.
For more Genius Hour resources, here is my page that includes helpful links, my own personal journey with Genius Hour, and some downloadable activities.
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!
About three years ago, we tried out a tool called, “Flipgrid” for a project that my students were doing for Genius Hour. We were using a trial version and I decided against a paid subscription and I didn’t think I was ready to invest in that at the time. However, I am seeing a lot of features that make Flipgrid a potentially exciting classroom tool. Basically, Flipgrid allows you to create a topic, and other people can add videos to respond to the topic. All of the video responses are collected on one page, which makes it easy to access them. This means that people can reply asynchronously, (as opposed to a Skype interview, for example) which allows for participants from all over the world to add videos when it is convenient in their time zones. For global learning, this can be an invaluable tool.
Recently, Flipgrid started offering a free account. Although it obviously offers less features (you are limited to one grid instead of unlimited, for example), it is still something worth trying. One grid still allows unlimited topics. Another way that you can experience Flipgrid for free is to participate in its “Explorer Series.” In the first edition of this series last October, Flipgrid offered weekly videos from an Antarctic marine biologist along with questions to which students could respond. Flipgrid just launched the second edition, which will be two weeks of posts from Mike Billington of the University of Minnesota Raptor Center. The first topic is, “What is a common bird in your community? What can you do to support their environment?” Mike’s first video shows him with a live bald eagle, a site many students don’t get the chance to see. It would be interesting to connect this experience with Beauty and the Beak, and certainly a great way to make the last few weeks of school engaging and educational.
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.