The Curiosity Workshop is a website founded by Mia Nicklin, who began to write daily “curiosities” for her son when she observed that his school experiences did not seem to be stimulating his interest in learning. Among the staff and contributors, The Curiosity Workshop also has a teacher advisory board and a student one that includes children between 8 and 12 years old.
Somewhat of an online magazine for children, The Curiosity Workshop is certain to motivate readers to learn more with its amazing pictures and kid “bite-sized” information . It does not yet have the substantive number of resources that you can find on sites like Wonderopolis, but it does have an interesting “hook.” With parent permission, students can register for the “Read for Good” program, which allows participants to collect online “stamps” as they correctly answer questions about each of the posts. With a mere 50 stamps, they can choose a charity to which to donate, such as saving elephants or providing soccer balls to impoverished communities.
This site has a lot of potential, and I hope that it will expand over time. In the meantime, share it with students and parents if you are interested in nourishing curiosity and the world at the same time.
Google Sites are blocked for our elementary students, so I show my 5th graders the Weebly for Education site if they are interested in designing their own websites. Sometimes students create them for Genius Hour projects. This year, my students were so excited about the manifestos they created in Canva that I suggested they use the images as launching points for websites that reinforced their core beliefs.
Students seem to understand the Weebly tools very quickly. In fact, as soon as they see all that they can do, they want to do it all – add images, video, quotes, links, etc… Many of them immediately went home the first day to add to their sites and are super proud to present them.
For this particular project, I asked the students to include their manifestos, along with a page that describes their “Dream Team” – famous people who lived lives that modeled the beliefs in their manifestos. (They used Academy of Achievement’s “Role Model” tool to help them discover potential Dream Team members.) They could also include inspirational quotes and videos.
Weebly for Education is different from the main Weebly site because the education version allows teachers to have a dashboard of students for free. However, from what I have been able to see, there is no way to view a student’s website through the dashboard until he or she publishes it. This is a little inconvenient as they are editing, but the benefit of all of the other free features far outweighs this issue.
You can see a screen shot from one of my student’s websites below, and click on the link to visit his site.
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!
In a recent post by Jennifer Gonzalez, author of the Cult of Pedagogy blog, she gives an incredible list of things to do on “Lame Duck School Days.” You know, like the day after you’ve finished all of your standardized testing for the year, or the two weeks before the end of school when all of your textbooks and sometimes your computers have been collected for “inventory,” or the hour before you go on your final field trip the day before the last day of school.
One of the suggestions given by Jennifer is an “unconference” where, “Using a chunk of hours or a whole day, teachers and students plan short lessons on things they are interested in outside of school (crafts, yoga, cooking, martial arts, music, dance, technology), then sign up for time slots like an EdCamp.”
We have been doing this type of event at our school with our 5th graders this year, and Jennifer’s post reminded me that I owe you an update on its progress. As regular readers may know, I try to give you the good, the bad, and the “please avoid these mistakes if you value your sanity” about projects like this.
First of all, here is the first post that I did in October about our Genius Camp. If you read it, you will see that I gave some precautions along with the positive outcomes at that point. Since that post, all four of our 5th grade classes have each taken a turn “teaching” sessions at Genius Camp. We have now embarked on the 2nd round, which consists of shorter rotations since the students have some experience. Now, each class meets twice before presenting on the third week (before, it was 5 meetings with Genius Camp on the 6th week). The other change that we are making for this round is that the students are being judged using this rubric. The adults who monitor each session are doing the judging, so we can choose some exemplary sessions the students can demonstrate for this year’s 4th graders (who will be leading their own sessions next year).
Some things that haven’t gone well so far (2 homerooms have completed their second round):
Some students are getting silly this time of year, and prefer to generate what they think are humorous ideas, such as (and I promise you someone suggested this), “teaching how to bounce a ping-pong ball into a red cup.” For many reasons, I rejected that proposal… Also rejected, “how to play poker – but we won’t call it that.”
For the first time this whole year, I had two groups who did not bring supplies on time – so the people who selected their sessions had to be placed in other ones at the last minute. Even though every student had originally given 3 choices when filling out their session surveys, many of their choices were full at that point. This resulted in a bunch of students going to sessions that were not interesting to them.
Also for the first time this whole year, I had to exclude some students from participating because they would not stay on task to plan their sessions.
Two students chose to go to a different session than what they were assigned, resulting in behavior issues the student teachers shouldn’t have had to address. (Every student wears a label with name and session title, but these were not checked, unfortunately.)
After some of these experiences, I’ve come close to declaring, “I guess we just can’t have nice things,” and shutting the whole experience down. However, there are some kids – maybe even more than the number of kids who want to sabotage the activity – who seem to actually love participating and teaching the sessions. So, I’m trying to keep these positive moments in the forefront of my mind:
When her teacher came to check on the session one Special Ed. student was leading, the girl who exclaimed proudly, “It’s going so well!!!!” (and it was)
The girls who confided, when they were placed in Football for Beginners due to scheduling snafus, that they “actually learned a few things!”
The boy who wore a suit to teach his session on drawing – and did a fine job
The boy who built a working engine model for the students to try in his group’s session, “Everything You Wanted to Know About Engines,”
The girl who doesn’t like dancing in front of people, but agreed to teach a dance with her partner after I told her that I regret always caring too much about what other people think of my dancing,
The boy who whispered to the adult monitoring his session, “Now I know what teachers go through,” when he kept asking his group to quiet down so they could hear instructions.
My principal, who monitored a session on making video blogs, and allowed his “teacher” to record him doing the mannequin challenge.
I’m pretty sure there are more that I could add to the second list.
It would be so much easier to show movies or give out worksheets during these last weeks of school. But I can’t help thinking that this is the last chance that we have to teach students some important lessons before they move on to middle school. For some of them this might be their chance to show that they are really good at doing something that isn’t academic or to learn that they enjoy being in a leadership role. For others, they may develop more empathy for people who teach – or for people trying to learn something new.
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.
Many of my 4th graders embarked on the “Presentation Planning” stage of their Genius Hour projects this week. I require their presentations include an interactive portion for the audience. When they saw “game show” as one of the choices, that became an instant favorite. The problem with this is that the default game show format for my students always seems to be “Jeopardy.” There is nothing wrong with Jeopardy, but I’ve been guiding Genius Hour projects for several years, and would like to see a little more variety in this area.
Thankfully, I obsessively save websites to look at later with my Pocket app, and recalled there was a blog post about game shows. Although the post was written with teachers in mind as the hosts, many of the suggestions in “30 Activities Inspired by Game Shows” are ones that could be used by students.
Another possibility would be to encourage the students to create their own game show format. You never know who in your class might be the next Merv Griffin!
We have been using Skype for a few years in my classroom. Sometimes we have chatted with experts for genius hour projects and other times we have talked with classmates who have moved away. A couple of times we have used it to talk with app developers about products the students were beta testing.
As many educators know, inviting other adults into your classroom, whether virtually or physically, can be extremely unpredictable. While these adults may be experts, that does not guarantee they are able to impart their knowledge effectively to young people. They may have great intentions, but might have a hard time keeping your students interested.
This is what is great about using the resources from Skype in the Classroom. On this site, you can look for guest speakers, virtual field trips, and other classrooms to collaborate with. The people who have volunteered to have information posted on the site are experienced working with students. Your chances of having a great Skype lesson are increased when choosing a contact who is prepared to speak to a young audience.
After each Skype, my students and I felt very gratified that the hosts were willing to volunteer 45 minutes out of their days to help the students understand their topics better. The experts were able to offer perspectives and ideas that were new to all of us, and we agreed we definitely learned quite a bit. I must admit, also, that I was relieved that the presenters were not only very knowledgeable about their subjects, but excellent at communicating with children.
If you want to use the Skype in the Classroom site, you will need to have a free Skype contact already created, and to register with the Skype in the Classroom site. If you are a beginner, don’t worry. There are tons of resources on the site to get you started. In addition, you will find the people who respond to your interview requests are very happy to help as well.
Take your students to places and people they might not otherwise ever encounter with Skype in the Classroom. It will deepen everyone’s learning, including your own.
UPDATE 1/8/17: I just found this fantastic blog post that gives suggestions for Skype Virtual Field Trips from Skype Master Teachers!