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
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.
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.
My first post about Thrively was in 2015. Since then, the platform has changed a bit. There is still a free option that includes a Strengths Assessment and links to resources and local activities connected to student interests. However, there are now journals and online courses, such as, “Find Your Passion” and “Grit.” There are even more options in Classroom Pro and School Pro that you can see on this pricing comparison page.
I am using Thrively with my 5th grade gifted students. They completed the Strengths Assessment today and began the “Find Your Passion” course. With the free version, I have a Teacher Dashboard, so I am able to see their Strength Profiles, Interests, and Aspirations. I can also read the responses to the journal prompts. Using the “Class Insights” menu, I can access summaries of class interests and click on each interest to see exactly which students chose each category. You can also involve parents by inviting them to view their child’s profile.
After discussing the assessment today, one student thanked me for giving him the opportunity to do it. The entire class was enthusiastic about completing the assessment and continuing with the courses, which are a great tie-in to working on Genius Hour.
Thrively is a great tool to help you learn more about your students – and for them to learn more about themselves. One student ironically commented that she was pretty certain that she was not assertive like her assessment claimed – until we discussed the meaning of assertive and she realized that it can be a great strength.
Due to the vocabulary and the amount of reading involved, I would not recommend using Thrively with students younger than 5th grade.
In addition to doing Genius Hour with my 3rd-5th grade gifted students, I have been guiding 5th grade students through what I like to call, “Genius Camp” during our school’s weekly enrichment time for the past year and a half. For my first post on this, which explains the logistics of the time, you can read here. Basically, I work with one 5th grade homeroom for 45 minutes per week for about 6-8 weeks. (It was 6 weeks last year, but we changed the timeframe this year.) During the last session, the students teach lessons to the rest of the students in 5th grade. It’s kind of a Genius Hour/EdCamp hybrid because there are students choosing what they want to present and other students get to vote on which session they would like to attend. (You can go to this folder to make copies of all of the templates listed below.)
Week 1 – Intro. to Genius Camp, brainstorming ideas for sessions
Week 6 –Practicing and critiquing each other’s sessions (all materials due this day or students cannot present the next week)
Week 7 – Other homerooms fill out Google Form selecting 1st, 2nd, 3rd choice for sessions. Sessions are presented during enrichment time that week. Each participating student receives a label with name, session name, and location. There is an adult supervisor at every location.
As you can see from this post that I did toward the end of last school year, Genius Camp has not been perfect. But I have seen many, many successes that have outweighed the obstacles. My favorite part has been witnessing students shine who often don’t get the opportunity to demonstrate their interests or their strengths during the school day. Every 5th grader gets to participate in Genius Camp, and I enjoy discovering their passions. Many times I hear comments from the adult supervisors like, “I had no idea so and so has such a natural talent for teaching!” or, “I never knew so and so knew so much about World War II!”
If you can find a way to bring Genius Camp to your school, whether through enrichment time, an after-school club, or by carving out time in a regular class, you and your students will find that it is time well spent.