How About Adding a Genius Bar to Your Classroom?


Ever since my former principal, John Hinds, recommended a book to our staff, Spaces and Places, by Debbie Diller, I have looked at my classroom with a brand new set of eyes.  I’ve tried to break out of the traditional mold, and to create an environment that promotes engagement, collaboration, and curiosity.  I still haven’t attained the ideal classroom, but I like to think that I improve each year.

This isn’t about themes or decorating.  This is about placement of furniture and learning tools.  It’s about visualizing the kind of learning that you would like to see happening, and then designing a space that facilitates that.

My ideal classroom would have mobile furniture, like the one I described here.  But, in the absence of that, there are still things that I can do to project the aura of a synergetic learning enviroment.  For example, this recent series of videos posted by Edutopia showing the transformation of a middle school teacher’s classroom gave me the idea of adding a “Genius Bar” to my room.   (I suppose, if one is worried about the implications of the word, “bar”,  “Genius Counter” might be a good substitute.)  In the video, it is one wall with a long dry erase board over a counter and two computers at either end.  What a fabulous idea!  This would help me with my efforts to encourage the students to consult each other to help with problem solving, rather than to immediately refer to me.

Most of us do not have the resources to design a classroom from the ground up, but this is a great time of year to consider getting rid of, or re-purposing, what we don’t need and finding the best placement for what have.  I know many teachers who have surrendered their teacher desks and/or filing cabinets because these pieces of furniture no longer serve a helpful function in the learner-centered, 21st-century classroom.

Instead of walking into your classroom and mechanically dragging desks into rows this year, consider what physical changes you can make to galvanize your students to become the kind of learners you have always imagined.

Since most of us don’t have a design team to consult, I highly recommend Spaces and Places as a more economical alternative.  Also, Classroom Architect is an online tool that you may find useful as you plan the structure of your classroom.

What Do You Think – How Individualized Should We Make Education?


Recently I’ve run across quite a few articles that seem to give opposing viewpoints about the direction schools should be going in order to improve.  I would like to hear your thoughts on some of these topics.

Big Think recently posted an article called, “IEPS Shouldn’t Be Just About Special Ed.”  The article, by Chris Dawson, advocates the use of technology to differentiate instruction for all students.  The claim is, and to a certain extent it’s true, that only Special Education students have legal documents that specify the type of instruction they should receive.  However, all students should have this right, instead of being lumped into large groups who receive standardized lessons which are often directed towards “the middle.”

As a teacher of gifted students, I hear this observation quite a bit from parents and students.  While I certainly understand the difficulties with the current structure of most schools to make these types of accommodations, technology can definitely get us closer to customizing instruction.  We just need to be careful of the danger of automatizing learning too much. That is why I am a huge advocate of “Genius Hour” and projects like our district’s pilot summer program.  I also support Universal Design for Learning as a means for achieving this goal of creating a learning environment that supports and benefits all types of learners.

Interestingly, I found a comment on Dawson’s article that showed a different perspective.  “The problem with this notion is that life out of schools doesn’t accomodate to us. We accomodate to it. We also risk limiting kids to the things they are already good at. That they already like. Perhaps the Dawson family would enjoy a different brand of pizza on Friday night, or perhaps something altogether different than pizza.”

So, I wonder.  What do you think?  Does designing instruction so that it will raise the bar for every student based on his or her needs and abilities do them a disservice in the “real world?”  All thoughtful comments are appreciated!


Some people spent their Easter weekend camping out in parks. Some spent it cooking and baking feasts for their family. I spent it playing two new games on my iPad.

iSolveIt is brought to you by the Center for Applied Special Technology. CAST is “an educational research & development organization that works to expand learning opportunities for all individuals through Universal Design for Learning.”

I have mentioned UDL a few times in earlier posts. With iSolveIt, it appears that CAST is working on developing apps that fit into the UDL framework.

Currently, there are two app for iDevices: MathSquared and MathScaled. What I like about both of these free apps is that they allow multiple people to register on one iPad, so when they are using it they can just log in, and continue with the level they last accessed. I also like that the apps have a few levels which allows you to work at your own pace. Another advantage is that each one has a “Scratch Pad” option, allowing you to make notes to help you with your game. And, finally, I am thrilled by the reasoning skils that are required to play each of these games. These are not “drill and kill” games.

What I didn’t like was that I could not find the instructions for either app within the app itself. I ended up going to the iSolveIt website to figure out what I was supposed to be doing for both games. The website has helpful directions and videos, but it would be nice to be able to have tutorials within the app.

If you like Sudoku and Ken-Ken, then MathSquared is the game for you. If you like balancing equations in Algebra, then MathScaled will appeal to you. Or, you can neglect all of your other duties for the next few days, and try both.

Math Class (Imagined by Kids)

One of my colleagues shared this video the other day that had been shown at one of our district trainings.  On one hand (with one, two, three, four, five fingers), it’s quite funny.  On the other hand, it is a bit scary – because we probably all had teachers like that at one time or another.  Sometimes, as teachers, we get frustrated that our students don’t understand, but forget to try teaching the skill a completely different way that they might comprehend more easily.  Many times, they can discover the method on their own with a little bit of guidance.  This video reminds me that I need to constantly monitor my students’ understanding, and to be ready to offer alternatives instead of getting upset when they don’t “get it”.

Here is the YouTube link in case you are unable to view the embedded video:

New Genius Hour Page

During Genius Hour, two students try to figure out why their rubber-band car isn’t working.

For almost two years, I have been implementing a “Genius Hour” with my gifted 5th graders.  I periodically post about this, but I thought it might be nice to collect all of the posts and resources on one page for reference.  You can now access this page by clicking on “Genius Hour Resources” at the top of this blog, or you can click here.

If you have never heard of Genius Hour, then you might want to start with, “What is Genius Hour?”  Another good place to start is “Designing 20% Time in Education.”

Even though I teach gifted students, many of the resources on my new page are evidence that Genius Hour can work in any classroom.  It won’t look exactly the same, but that’s the point!  As teachers, we can be innovative about how we encourage innovation in our students.  During Genius Hour, students learn how to pursue and communicate their passions – and isn’t that why we really teach?

The Passion Project

from “The Future Project Playbook”

Sometimes I start reading a blog post and my jaw drops. I am constantly amazed by the work of educators around the globe, and Sonya Terborg is one person I deeply admire.  From her blog, I learned about The Passion Project, and I am absolutely convinced that I must somehow find a way to include this in my plans for my gifted fifth graders.

There is too much involved for me to eloquently explain The Passion Project.  Here is one sentence from the “About” page of their site, “Our goal was to give our students the opportunity to explore their passions in a meaningful way, with freedom to explore and the chance to use this time to connect to themselves as learners and as members of a community.”

On her recent post, “Gearing up for Passion!”, Sonya shared a link to a wonderful “playbook” from The Future Project, another website that has similar goals.  This 60 page free download has many thought-provoking exercises.  The image above is one excerpt.  I can’t wait to use this with my students.

I am also “passionate” about the idea of having my students create a video like the one below, “Dear World…Our messages to the world!”  You must watch this!

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