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How to Plan and Implement Genius Hour in Your Classroom Today

Hi friends, and welcome to episode 3 of the EdTech Classroom Podcast. Let’s learn and grow together as 21st century educators.

I’ve got a really exciting podcast planned today, where we’re going to be talking about self-guided passion projects and Genius Hour.

In last week’s episode, we talked about project-based learning, and this week we are going to focus on a very specific type of PBL unit you can do with your students.

If you haven’t listened to last week’s episode, I’d really recommend you check it out because there are so many incredible overlaps between PBL and Genius Hour.

Before I jump into an explanation of what Genius Hour is and before I walk you through the planning step-by-step, I want to start off by shouting out some of the educators who have really paved the way for Genius Hour in schools:

Jennifer Gonzalez, AJ Juliani, and John Spencer. 

These educators have shared their wisdom with me, and I hope that I’ll give you guys some guidance 

What is Genius Hour?

Alright so let’s give some context for Genius Hour.

A number of years ago, tech companies started doing this 80/20 idea in their workplaces, where employees are allotted 20% of their work time to work on their own passion projects. 

The only rule is that their projects have to benefit the company in some way. And what is really incredible about this 20% time is that employees have been able to create some pretty amazing, life-changing products.

And I’m not exaggerating here.

20% Time has proven to be wildly successful for companies… 

Some of Google’s biggest products including Gmail and Google News came from Genius Hour projects. 

I mean… I use Gmail literally every single day and that came out of Genius Hour.

I can’t think of a better example as to why we should give people the opportunity to work on projects that they are actually passionate about.

But in addition to creating cool products, employees are actually liking work more. When people spend time pursuing their passions, they are happier, they learn more, they contribute more. They innovate.

I know that at my workplace, I would love to explore my own passion project. Imagine the wonderful things teachers could create if they, too, could explore their own interests.

Luckily for students, many teachers have also begun using Genius Hour over the past few years with a similar premise: students can spend a certain amount of time (decided by either the teacher or school) to work on their own self-guided passion projects. 

In a Genius Hour project, students have several weeks where they research topics of their choice and create final products to share with the community – either their school community or the community at large.

If this sounds overwhelming to you, I get it. Personalized learning can seem difficult to achieve, especially remotely, but I’d like to shift our thinking because now is actually the perfect time to be exploring innovative learning models and lesson plans like Genius Hour.

Now is the time to experiment. To give students agency. To ignite passion in students around learning. And what better way to do that – to honor student social emotional needs – than by implementing Genius Hour in your classroom?

So… let me tell you guys the secret sauce of Genius Hour…

There is no magic formula or special recipe to implementing the perfect Genius Hour. 

All you need is to make sure you’re focusing on two main things: passion and purpose.

Genius Hour works best when students feel deeply passionate about their project topics and when students actually feel like there is a purpose to their project and a real-world application.

Why Genius Hour?

Research continues to show the importance of amplifying student voice and choice in our classrooms. Student agency is critical to teaching students how to love learning. 

And not only that, when students have agency over their work, they are more engaged, which leads to deeper learning. 

Right now, given the uncertainty of the world in 2020, students need and crave agency. They want to have ownership over their education. 

By allowing students to pursue their own passion projects, you will be able to guide them along the way, you will be their coaches to the learning process, allowing them to thrive and shine unlike ever before. 

If you’re listening to this thinking, “yeah, yeah, Genius Hour sounds great, but I don’t think I can do that with my students.” Guess what? Yes you can.

If you work at a school or in a district with strict standards and curriculum, you can create a Genius Hour that aligns with state standards.

You can do this with your high schoolers, your middle schoolers, and even your elementary students. That’s right. You can do Genius Hour with students of all ages and of all abilities. 

I’ve seen Genius Hour examples implemented successfully in every single grade level, K-12. I’ve seen it done successfully in most subjects too.

If you’re a science teacher, a math teacher, an ELA teacher, a Spanish teacher… if you are a teacher, you can do Genius Hour with your students. 

Structure of Genius Hour

Today, I really want to go into an in-depth exploration of how you can plan a Genius Hour, inquiry-based learning unit with your students. 

I want you to walk away from this episode with an exact plan for how you could begin implementing Genius Hour in your classroom… literally like, tomorrow.

So now’s the time in the podcast where you might want to jot down some notes. If you’re not feeling it right now, no worries. You can visit my blog to read this transcription later. 

Decide on a Subject Area

Before starting this project with your students, you need to decide whether you are aligning your Genius Hour with a specific standard or subject area. 

For example, are you wanting your students to explore a specific topic, like U.S. history or ecosystem science? Or, are you wanting your students to take a deep-dive into anything they are passionate about?

You can meet state standards either way. So decide what makes the most sense for your course curriculum. An elementary ELA teacher might opt for students to explore their passions in general, whereas a science teacher might want to zoom in on a specific topic, like space or the ecosystem. 

For today’s example, we’re going to look at a general Genius Hour project, but later, I’ll still provide some examples on how you can apply 20% time to a variety of subjects. 

Like I mentioned earlier, you can really apply Genius Hour to any grade level, so today I’m going to give a very general framework, so you’ll have concrete takeaways no matter if you teach six year olds or sixteen year olds.

Five Steps

When I have done Genius Hour with students in the past before, I’ve structured my unit around these five key pillars. And, it’s important to keep in mind that these 5 pillars really focus on student passion and purpose.

  1. Students select their topics
  2. Students formulate research questions
  3. Students research topics
  4. Students create projects
  5. Students share their projects with the school or greater community

At the start of a Genius Hour unit, I always recommend sharing these five steps with your students. It is so important for them to understand where they are going. In order to create their own goals and projects, they need to have a roadmap.

That’s where these five steps come in. 

On the very first day of Genius Hour, I’d recommend breaking these five steps down with your students. Actually, I’d recommend explaining to them what Genius Hour is first, and then you can break down these five steps.

You’ll tell them they might have a week to brainstorm their topics.

They might have another week to formulate their research questions.

Two weeks to research.

A week to create a project, and a week dedicated to sharing.

The timeline is up to you, but the point is that it is so critical you lay out this structure to students, in age-appropriate ways of course.

Which reminds me that, if you’re teaching elementary school students, it’s also really important to consider sending home a letter to families about what Genius Hour is. 

You can explain to families the idea behind Genius Hour and that you will be guiding students to meet state standards and core competencies throughout this process. 

Now that we know what these five pillars are, let’s take a look at each in greater detail.

Choosing A Topic

Okay so first, for choosing a topic, I recommend launching into this unit by encouraging your students to self-reflect and brainstorm.

On the first day, I might have students brainstorm what their strengths and stretches in school are, what their passions outside of school are, what their interests are.

This day is really meant to focus on getting to know your students, so you can guide them to select a meaningful topic that’s right for them.

You might have students create “I wonder” pages, where they write down all their wonderings. 

If this makes sense for your classroom or school community, you might even have your students “wonder” and “wander.” This is a term that my beloved teacher David Dunbar taught me my junior year of high school, and I’ll never forget it.

He’d say “go wonder and wander,” meaning, walk around, wander, and think about what you are wondering. 

I still do this regularly by the way. When I’m in a rut, or have writer’s block, I’ll go for a walk. I’ll wonder and I’ll wander.

So, let’s say you decided to give your students some wondering time, then you can have them begin to narrow down their brainstorm to focus on 5 or so areas that really excite them. 

From there, you will be able to coach students into selecting an idea that they are truly, deeply passionate about – whether that be something as academic as quantum physics or something as playful as amusement parks and roller coasters. 

Asking Questions

So now, we’re going to move onto step 2. Asking questions. In order for students to write strong research questions, they’ll need to actually know what a good research question is.

This is where you can really step in and guide them. You can provide examples of really good research questions. 

For elementary students, for example, you might say something like this, 

“A research question is a question that you base your research on. Great research questions often start with ‘why’ and ‘how.’ Can anyone in the class come up with a question that might start with ‘why’ or ‘how?” 

Or, maybe instead you’ll say something like, “let’s look at a couple examples of some really great research questions. These two questions both start with the question word ‘how.’ Question number 1 is ‘how can we reduce food waste at our school?” this is a great question because blah blah blah…

“Question number 2 is ‘how can you design the fastest, most thrilling roller coaster in the world.” 

So, you get the point. 

Now, students can begin to brainstorm research questions. They’ll probably need to write many research questions before they come up with their final one. And that is okay. 

In fact, that is great!

It’s so important that you approve their research questions, so make sure you have some sort of structure in place where you can provide your students with feedback on their research questions.

You want to make sure that your students don’t use research questions that are really really broad or really really narrow in scope. 

You don’t want your students to ask questions that are impossible to answer, but you also don’t want your students to ask questions that have yes/no answers or answers that are easy to come across on Google, for example.

It’s important for students to ask what I like to call “just right” questions. And you can help guide your students to create these “just right” questions by providing them with feedback.

You can do this through one-on-one check-ins, worksheets to turn in, or even Google Forms that students can submit. Whatever you choose, just make sure you have a feedback structure in place.

Researching Your Topic

Next, we’ll look at researching topics. Once students have a really solid research question, they can begin their research.

This is a great time for students to practice reading non-fiction books, or to practice their digital citizenship skills by doing online research. This is a great place to tie in some standards, specifically related to research.

Students can learn about different resources, like newspaper articles and books and talking to experts.

Students can practice note taking and learn how to distinguish fact from fiction. There’s really so much great learning that can happen from researching a specific topic area.

If you’re not sure where to start, reach out to your school librarian, or take a look at your grade level’s ELA standards. 

Creating Your Project

Now that students have completed their research, they can start to create their projects. This is where students can really go wild with their imaginations and creativity.

Students can create movies, websites, TED-style talks… they can put on performances, they can write blog posts or create a podcast. The opportunities are endless. Give students some examples, but allow students to stretch their imaginations.

At this stage, however, it’s really, really important that you give your students as much guidance as possible. This is where I’d really recommend you have regular project check-ins with your students.

They’re going to get stuck. They’re going to make mistakes. They’ll fail.

And you can help guide them and empower them to find beauty in these failures.

Something I’ve seen around before, and I can’t take credit for this idea because it’s not mine, but the idea of Epic Failure Boards. 

I’ve seen some amazing teachers who have created Epic Failure Boards in their classrooms, where students can post their mistakes and share them with the class.

Reframing mistakes as places where learning and growth happens is an amazing way to help your students build confidence and a growth mindset. 

And, if you’re teaching remotely, you can create a digital epic failure board. You can have your students use a tool like Padlet, for example, to post sticky-note style learnings.

But back to creating projects, be sure to set up a procedure so that students can check-in with you along the way.

For remote check-ins, you can create a Google Form where you ask students questions like “what can I do to support you?” Or, you could set up 15min one-on-one Zoom sessions. Or, you can create a Flipgrid activity (set to private so that only you can see student responses) where you ask your students to reflect on their learning thus far.

Sharing

Lastly, sharing projects. Much like all project-based learning units, it is critical that students share their work with their classroom, the school, or the greater community. What this looks like depends on your classroom needs, but I’ll give a few ideas. 

These ideas, too, can really accommodate any type of student project, regardless of the chosen medium:

You can have a science fair-type exhibition where people can gallery-walk and learn more about student projects. 

This is actually still possible remotely. I did this for my school for our 4th grade visual arts end-of-year exhibition. I don’t want to stray too far from the subject here, but if this sounds interesting to you, reach out to me and I can share more specifics.

You can livestream student presentations on Zoom in a webinar-style format.

Or, if your students created their final products using a variety of different tools, like flyers using Comic Life, or websites using Google Sites, or movies made on iMovie, then you can create a class webpage that accommodates all of these different tools.

At the end of the day, make sure your students are sharing their learning. They’ll learn by sharing, and they’ll gain important life skills while doing it. 

What makes Genius Hour, and project-based learning in general, so great is that students can actually share their passion with the greater community. 

It is so powerful for students to be able to present on topics they chose, on projects they created. Genius Hour presentations give students confidence. They give students autonomy. An opportunity to share their voice to the world around them.

Structure Summary

I hope that this structure is helpful in giving you inspiration to plan your own Genius Hour with your students. 

If you’d like a pre-made, absolutely no prep Genius Hour project planner for elementary students, please check out the link in this podcast description. I’ve made one that is super, super popular among elementary school teachers across the country, and I think you’ll enjoy it too.

What subjects does Genius Hour work well with?

Like I mentioned earlier, I do want to add a couple of notes about what subjects Genius Hour works really well with.

Here is my honest, honest answer. Genius Hour works well with every subject.

If you’re teaching a non-fiction unit, consider incorporating Genius Hour so students can practice researching and analyzing non-fiction texts.

If you’re teaching a STEM unit, consider incorporating Genius Hour so your students can practice design thinking and making and tinkering.

If you’re a librarian, your students can learn about research and digital citizenship through Genius Hour.

The list goes on.

You can provide additional structure to your Genius Hour by aligning the project to standards. I know that most schools require teachers to write standards up on the board.

So for these self-guided research projects, no matter what subject you teach, you can write a general standard or lesson objective on the board. That way, you’re meeting state standards and you’re giving students a personalized learning experience.

All I’m saying is… try it. If you’ve always wanted to try Genius Hour, just do it. Just try it.

I think you might notice that for the very first time ever, a student – a kid who normally struggles so much in school – will actually thrive. Or, the student who really excels at traditional school might actually learn what it’s like to struggle through uncertainty of self-guided tasks. And that’s great. They’ll be a better learner because of it.

Grading

For our last topic, I want to talk about grading. This is something that comes up a lot in conversations about Genius Hour, and I’ll just be honest.

It’s tricky to figure out how to grade Genius Hour. 

Should students really even be graded on pursuing their passions? I don’t necessarily believe that every single thing or assignment a student completes in school should be graded with a letter or a number. 

I certainly don’t believe that fear of failure should prevent students from pursuing their interests and passions.

If you work at an independent school, you might have more flexibility in terms of grading. And that’s great. A lot of schools have even shifted to a mastery-based grading system where letter grades are a thing of the past.

But, most schools don’t have that kind of flexibility. Most schools don’t use mastery-based grading. 

No matter what type of school you work at, when you are grading a Genius Hour project, it is so important that you grade the process over the product.

In general, I am always a firm believer in process over product. Kids learn so much from the process.

I recommend that you grade Genius Hour projects based on the 5 steps we outlined previously: brainstorming, writing questions, researching, creating and building, and sharing.

When you build your rubric, you can then incorporate content and performance standards based on these five core areas. You’ll realize that it’s so much easier to grade Genius Hour when you are able to lean on the standards that students have learned and mastered, like research and presentation skills.

I also know that some teachers use a GRIT rubric when grading Genius Hour projects. This is something that I’ve seen on AJ Juliani’s website, and I believe was originally created by a college track program in San Francisco.

Basically the GRIT rubric looks at four main areas: guts, resilience, integrity, and tenacity. 

This rubric looks at process, much like the one I recommended before, but specifically looks at courage, persistence, reflection, honesty, forward-thinking – all these life skills that students gain from working on things they are passionate about.

In a link in this podcast description, you’ll find a Genius Hour Project Planner, which I mentioned earlier, that includes the rubric that I like to use with my students and that teachers across the country have used and loved.

Conclusion

From the time a student enters Kindergarten to the time they graduate 12th grade, they will have spent over 14,000 hours in school (A.J. Juliani). 

That’s right. 14,000 hours in school.

How many hours do students spend actually doing things they are interested in? How many hours do students actually have choice and autonomy and a time to exercise their own voice?

The second students leave our classrooms, leave our schools, and enter the real world, they will be surrounded by choices. So many choices! 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my students to have to wait 14,000 hours to experience autonomy. To experience agency and choice.

When I think about my peers, not just my teacher friends, by my greater peer community – I often wonder how happy they are. Whether they like their jobs.

People joke that they’re unhappy with work, and I wonder when that starts. When that really begins.

Because the second we enter the school system we don’t have choices really. We study hard to go to college or to get a good job or to get that dream life, but we are never told to study hard so that we can learn

We are never told to explore our passions and our interests and the things that we deeply care about so that we can learn.

No, we’re told to follow a specific path.

But I’m here to challenge you. What would your classroom be like if you spent just 20% of your time allowing students to pursue their passions?

Don’t let your students experience choice for the first time at 18 years old.

Let their journey of lifelong learning and choice begin with you. In your classroom. Don’t let them wait 14,000 hours.

Thank you so much for listening to this week’s episode of the EdTech Classroom Podcast. As always, I am so happy you joined me today, and I’m excited to be on this journey with you as 21st century educators. 

I’ll see you back here next week on Tech Tuesday where we’ll be discussing more ways to bring innovation into your classrooms and into the field of education. Bye friends!

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