How to Implement Genius Hour in Your Elementary School Classroom
In today’s blog post, I’ll be sharing step-by-step directions and strategies for implementing Genius Hour in your elementary classroom. If you teach older grades, I also share more broad strategies for K-12 and beyond in this previous post.
(1) First, I’ll describe Genius Hour and the purpose behind it.
(2) Then, we’ll take a look at some strategies on how to structure Genius Hour in your elementary classroom.
(3) I’ll provide some tips and tricks when it comes to grading and assessment.
(4) Lastly, I’ll share some additional resources if you would like to learn more!
If you are looking for a Genius Hour passion project planner to use with students, consider checking out this low-prep resource!
What is Genius Hour?
A number of years ago, many tech companies started doing this 80/20 idea in their workplaces where employees are allotted 20% of their work time to pursue 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.
In addition to creating new products, many employees are actually liking work more. When people spend time pursuing their passions, they are happier, they learn more, they contribute more. They innovate.
Genius Hour in Education
In the education field, many teachers have used Genius Hour 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.
There is no magic formula or special recipe to implementing the perfect Genius Hour.
All teachers need to do is make sure they are 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.
Structure of Genius Hour
I want you to walk away from today’s blog post with a very clear plan on how to execute and implement Genius Hour in your elementary classroom. The best way to get started with Genius Hour is to follow a clear structure.
As the teacher, first, you’ll want to decide on a subject area.
Select 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.
- Do you want your students to explore a specific topic, like ecosystem science or nonfiction reading?
- Do you want your students to explore something more open-ended, like a topic they feel passionate about?
A science teacher might want to focus on a specific topic, like space or the food chain, whereas an ELA teacher might opt for students to explore more open-ended topics or subject areas based on their book groups. Alternatively, a STEM teacher might want students to build a solution to help achieve one of the Sustainable Development Goals.
For the purpose of this blog post, I’m going to select a general, non-subject area specific Genius Hour.
Five Key Pillars of Genius Hour
Once you have decided on a subject area, you can now start planning the project phases of Genius Hour. I’ll be referring to these phases as the five key pillars of Genius Hour.
- Students select their topics.
- Students formulate research questions.
- Students research topics.
- Students create projects.
- Students share their projects with the school or greater community.
At the start of a Genius Hour unit, I always recommend sharing these five pillars 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.
Here is a timeline that you can use (and adapt based on your classroom needs):
- Brainstorming topics: 2-3 days
- Formulate research questions: 4-5 days
- Research topics: 1-2 weeks
- Create projects: 1 week
- Share: 1-2 days
In my Genius Hour passion project planner, I break down this timeline clearly for teachers and students.
Step 1: Students select their topics
On the very first day of Genius Hour, I’d recommend (1) explaining what Genius Hour is to your students, and (2) breaking down these five steps. Depending on your classroom needs, you can also consider sending home a letter to families explaining what Genius Hour is.
The purpose of the first week is to guide students to select a meaningful topic that aligns with their interests.
To do this, you can begin by having students brainstorm things like:
- What are your strengths and stretches in school?
- What are your passions outside of school?
- What subjects are you interested in?
- What do you like to do for fun?
During the first week, you can also have students create “I wonder” pages, where they write or draw their wonderings.
Once students have created their “I wonder” pages or begun their initial brainstorming, you can have them narrow down their choices to 3-8 different topic areas.
On the last day of the brainstorming phase, guide students in selecting their “genius idea!”
Step 2: Students write research questions
Developing research questions can be a bit tricky for many elementary students. For this stage, I’d recommend creating an anchor chart to help students learn about high-quality research questions.
To teach students about research questions, you can start off by saying something like…
“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?”
On your anchor chart, you can write down the question words “why” and “how.” You can also include questions that students share, or you can have some prepared to write down.
- How can we reduce food waste at our school?
- How do engineers design a fast, thrilling roller coaster?
You can also help students learn the different between questions that are too broad and too narrow. Students can learn about the importance of asking “just right” questions – questions that can’t be answered with a quick Google search but also aren’t too complex to answer.
When students are ready to write their questions, it might take them multiple tries. That’s okay! In fact, that’s great. Because of this, I’d recommend having a structure in place where you “approve” students’ research questions.
You can create this approval structure through one-on-one check-ins, worksheets to turn in, or even Google Forms that students can submit.
Step 3: Students research their topics
Once students have written their research questions, they can begin their research.
During this research stage, students can read non-fiction books. They can practice their digital citizenship skills by doing online research.
If you are struggling to figure out where to start, consider reaching out to your school librarian or taking a look at your grade level’s ELA standards related to research.
Other skills that students can practice include:
- Learning about different resources, like newspaper articles, books, and talking to experts.
- Distinguishing fact from fiction.
If you are looking for more guidance on how to introduce research to students, I share some helpful tips in my Genius Hour passion project planner.
Step 4: Students create their projects
In my experience, elementary students tend to have the most fun with this stage of Genius Hour: creating their projects. In this stage, students can really go wild with their imaginations and creativity.
This stage is FUN!
As the teacher, you can give students examples on how they might present their work to the class community. Some ideas might include:
- Short films
- Stop-motion animation
- TED-style talks
- Acting performance
- 3D model
- Comic book
- Blog post
During this stage, you can give students as much flexibility or structure as you feel makes the most sense for your class. At the end of the day, you know your students better than I do!
Give students choice but also give them guidance.
Step 5: Students share their projects
Most project-based learning units end with some sort of final presentation or public product. Genius Hour is the same.
Students can share their work with their class, the school, or the greater community. The scope of the presentation and audience is up to you.
Many students find joy in being able to share and present their work to their peers. Keep the sharing phase joyful.
Grading and Assessment
In my conversations with other teachers, I’ve found that assessment can be tricky. This is because with Genius Hour, it’s best to grade and assess process over product.
I recommend that you grade Genius Hour projects based on the 5 key pillars: brainstorming, writing questions, researching, creating and building, and sharing.
An “exceeds standards” in Genius Hour at the elementary level might look like:
- Brainstorming: Develops many creative and innovative ideas.
- Writing Research Questions: Writes strong, thought-provoking research questions.
- Researching: Is able to synthesize research and draw meaningful connections.
- Creating and Building: Always creates a prototype that they can explain.
- Sharing: Always is able to go above and beyond to share and reflect on a prototype in creative ways.
Of course, this is just a recommendation – feel free to adapt this rubric to meet your classroom needs or specific standards.
As promised, here are some additional resources to help you get started with Genius Hour. Many of the following resources helped inspire this blog post:
- Genius Hour website: http://geniushour.com/
- A.J. Juliani’s blog posts on Genius Hour: http://ajjuliani.com/category/genius-hour/
- John Spencer’s blog posts and podcast episodes on Genius Hour: https://spencerauthor.com/tag/genius-hour/
- Cult of Pedagogy’s post on Genius Hour: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/genius-hour-questions/
- We Are Teacher’s post on Genius Hour: https://www.weareteachers.com/what-is-genius-hour/
- My Genius Hour Passion Project Planner: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Genius-Hour-Passion-Project-Lesson-Plan-Interactive-Notebook-5413549
I hope you found this guide on how to implement Genius Hour in your elementary classroom helpful. If you liked this post and end up trying out Genius Hour, please let me know how it goes. I’d LOVE to hear from you!
If you would like to use my Genius Hour passion project planner with your students, you can check it out here!
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