Genius Hour – The hour that changed my classroom!

Genius Hour Collage

I have never been one for stereotypes.  In fact, I have prided myself in breaking as many as I could in my life.  So when I spent the summer preparing for a classroom full of hyperactive, athletic-minded, school-averse boys, I knew that I was also preparing for similarly minded girls.  I mean let’s face it, good teaching is good teaching, and I was prepared to do ANYTHING to make my class an ideal learning environment for all of my active, curious, hands-on kids.  

Enter Genius Hour.  I had read about Genius Hour for several years and LOVED the idea, but was frankly terrified of the risk it posed to my heavily structured, highly disciplined teaching style.  But coming off of maternity leave after a summer of soul-searching, I was prepared to take the leap.  What could I lose?

Modeled after Google’s 20 Percent Projects where employees spent roughly one day a week working on the passion projects that brought us Gmail, Google Talk, and Google Sky, Genius Hour offers students time at school to explore their passion, whatever it may be within reason.   In the words of my student, Ashley, “Genius Hour is one hour a week to work on your passion, something you have always wanted to learn but do not have time to do at home.”  

Students highlight and research their passions and develop products or skills that they then present to the class, discussing the mistakes they made along the way, how these mistakes shaped their product, and what they would do differently next time.  The projects cater to the interests of each individual.   For example, Ashley wanted to learn a new language. She shared, “I have always wanted to learn French but never have the time or focus at home.  Since I am already at school and focused, I can turn this focus to my passion for this one hour, and then back to reality.  I live for Genius Hour!”  

Genius Hour transformed my classroom and my entire approach to classroom learning.  It also opened the doors for me to be recognized as a Teacher of the Year Semi-Finalist for Orange County in 2016!  It is incredible what letting go of the reigns and putting the learning decisions into the hands of your students can do! 

In just two years of implementing Genius Hour in my class, I have seen projects in film making, animation, photography, fine arts, needlepoint, coding, novel and screenwriting, modeling, music mixing and composition, architectural and fashion design, video game creation, app design, and robotics!  We have also had small businesses started and several non-profit organizations created!  One in particular, Just for You, is hosted on raising money to create care packages for cancer patients to help them feel cared for and loved.  The sky really is the limit when you give the power to learn to the learner.  

I have learned to say “Yes” to all forms of ideas, trusting my students’ visions, and guiding them to plan, problem solve, and THINK through their processes.  Since this hour is a privilege, productivity throughout the week is higher than ever before.  Students who never turned in homework now frantically complete it so they can participate.  

My students have repeatedly impressed me with the scope, depth, and risk of their projects, proving how capable they are when it is their ideas motivating them.  I give them the gift of time to develop their passions, bringing innovation, entrepreneurialism, personalization, and FUN to school in an experimentally constructive, artistic, and challenging way.  I know this is exceptional teaching because it is what I want for my son, my new definition of greatness.  

This attitude of “Yes” has also helped me at home with my now 22-month-old son, Beau, as he explores his baby-passions and artistic flares.  Choo-choos and the same time?  I say, “Yes!”  They can go hand in hand, and we all learn more for it!  


“Boys Adrift” – What Boys Need to Succeed at Home and at School

One book that significantly impacted me the summer before I went back to work after my son was born was Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men.

My summer note-taking on "Boys Adrift"

According to author Leonard Sax, these five factors most affecting boys are video games, teaching methods, prescription drugs, endocrine disrupters, and the devaluation of masculinity.  While not all of these applied directly to my immediate situation as a mother of a newborn or as my role as an elementary classroom teacher, it was an incredibly enlightening read, providing several valuable hints as to how to approach my upcoming school year.  

Here are my key takeaways I used to reframe my classroom and to harness, direct, and positively utilize the boy energy in my class: there is a difference between knowing about something and knowing how to do something, competition compels action - create competition everywhere, and teach patience.  

There is a difference between knowing about something and knowing how to do something

Boys want to do, to create, to play.  They love to be outside where they can smell, taste, hear, and experience their world.  Whether it be because of increased fear of “stranger danger” or other factors, we are keeping boys inside or only involved in organized sports and activities.  

The indirect experience of video games, Smartphones, and the Internet (YouTubing how to fish vs. actually going out to fish) has replaced direct experience as a means of understanding the world, resulting in an increase in hyperactivity and attentional issues in many children, but in boys especially.  

“Hey, Teacher-Mom...”
  • Let me go outside!  I need to run and explore, sense and feel!  
  • Can I hold it?  I need hands-on opportunities whenever possible.  
  • Give me technology as an information source, but not as a replacement for direct experience.  I need to learn how to do things, not just to learn about things.
  • Help me find ways to enjoy being distracted (aka deep-in-thought), relaxed (aka daydreaming), and hard at play(aka exploring my physical and social environment) in ways that are not prescribed by adults or technology but that require my own design and imagination.  
  • Give me projects that I can touch.  Let me choose what and how I want to learn, at least some of the time.  I will do your type of work if I know you will also let me do mine.  

Competition Compels Action - Create Healthy Competition Everywhere

Boys thrive on competition, but only when there are certain criteria.  If they can see that the game is rigged or that they will not win, they will not participate.  Why should they?  To be beneficial, competition must be meaningful, challenging, and risky.

“Hey, Teacher-Mom...”
    • There must be winners and losers.  No sense in trying hard if I am going to get an equal reward either way.  
    • The outcome must be in doubt until the end.  I will keep trying if my chances of success are still uncertain.  
    • True winning should depend on how hard I play or try.   The reward is sweeter that way and I will try harder next time if I fail this time.  
    • Tell me what I need to do to improve.  I am not content as I am but as I should be.  I need constructive, honest feedback.  I may have talent, but I am not done excelling yet.  Acknowledge my talents, but don’t stop there. Show me where I can still improve and I will try.

      Teach Patience  

      Success in the real world requires patience.  Video games do not. Hunting, fishing, building models, all of these near-dying skills, once were the training grounds of patience.  We need to embed opportunities to practice patience into a boy’s home and school life so this virtue does not slip away.

“Hey, Teacher-Mom...”
    • Fill my bedroom and classroom with building and art supplies from an early age.  This way, I learn how to appreciate and enjoy them from the start.    
    • Let me create often.  In class, provide legos or other building toys as a reward for completed work or for free time.  Let me take these tools outside so I can make noise and take a break from the sitting still rigidity of the classroom.

This book, Boys Adrift, gave me a glimpse into the mindset of a boy.  I read it for my son, Beau, so I could provide for him a childhood that embraces his boyhood.  But more immediately, I read it for my students.  Thanks to this book, I had the courage to take a big step the year I returned from maternity leave.  

My first big step was bringing Genius Hour into my classroom.  This one thing changed school, not just for the boys, but for everyone.  This is the MOST POWERFUL HOUR in school.

Next up, my journey with Genius Hour...