Make This the Year You Launch Genius Hour

By Gallit Zvi and Denise Krebs

Have you heard of Genius Hour? It’s inquiry-based and passion-based learning all rolled into one and students love it! We are firm believers in this kind of student-centered classroom experience.

If you haven’t given this learning idea a shot in your class yet, we think you should consider making this the year you launch Genius Hour.

GH-image-launchThe Genius Hour movement was born on Twitter and we continue to host a #geniushour twitter chat each month. During our August chat we discussed how one might launch Genius Hour in this new school year. We heard some great tips from Genius Hour experts in the field, and we’d like to share their wealth of experience with you here.

Preparing for a Genius Hour launch

First we asked these teachers, some of whom have several years experience in Genius Hour, questions about what happens in their classrooms before they launch Genius Hour. They talked about how they would plan for Genius Hour, as well as when (and for how long) they’d prepare their students by introducing the concept.

  • Justin Greene and Carli Padgett each said their students will have conversations about their passions, likes and dislikes, and what they are wondering about. Likewise Amanda Dickey plans to have whole class and individual brainstorming about student passions.

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  • Laurie Davies, Jennifer Abbey and Cristal Edwards suggested community building is key. We totally agree. In fact, both of us always spend the first couple of months of the school year building a trusting, safe community and getting to know our students before launching Genius Hour.

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We love the use of a Wonder Wall in the classroom. It is great for students to know that their wonders and questions are important and worth recording. It is also really handy for those times when kids ask great questions during a lesson but you just don’t have the time to fully explore it. Instead of letting the question slip away, you can ask the student to put it on a wonder wall for exploration later on!

Getting the admin support you need

The next question we asked the group was how do you plan to get support from administration? Did they think this was something they ought to do or something that perhaps wasn’t necessary?

  • Many agreed that it was a good idea to keep administration in the loop about what was going on in their classrooms. Carol McLaughlin said “I think it’s a good idea to share what you’re doing w/ admin. Invite them into the process. Let your kids share with them.” We love the idea of inviting administration into the class to be a part of the Genius Hour process. Students love sharing their project ideas with them! In the past, we have had admin come in and work with students on their projects–giving encouragement, asking questions, etc. It is really magical! Most of the chat participants chimed in and agreed that their admin loved Genius Hour too!
  • Angela Rutschke echoed this sentiment, adding that her admin was really impressed with the inquiry skills her students were learning!

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  • Similarly, Cheryl Hopkins shared how her administration was always on board for innovative learning experiences like Genius Hour, but she also suggested bringing reasons to support your ideas. We think this is a great tip. Think about your ‘why’ for wanting to do Genius Hour in your room with your students and then mention those reasons to your admin when you tell them about launching Genius Hour. Then ask them to come in and join the fun!
  • Lindsey Matthews agrees. She advised folks to, “Plead your case and invite your admin in. The benefits are undeniable. He/she will be hooked!” So how do you plead your case? Go back to that ‘why’ question. Why do you want to do Genius Hour? Some of our major reasons for why Genius Hour is important are:
    • Passion
    • Autonomy
    • Curiosity
    • Purpose
  • Renee White added that she shared the huge number of standards that Genius Hour hits. This is another great thing to spend some time looking into and adding to your list of reasons for Genius Hour.

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Brainstorming Genius Hour project ideas

So after you’ve started your year off right – building community, working on inquiry and questioning skills, inviting administration in so that they can participate in Genius Hour too – the next step is to actually launch Genius Hour in your classroom. Which begs the question: how do you brainstorm potential Genius Hour project ideas with your class?

  • Renee White, as 1st grade teacher, talked about how she teaches questioning strategies first and then meets with students one-on-one or in small groups to brainstorm ideas.
  • Cheryl Hopkins and Lindsey Matthews both shared how their students enjoy being inspired by other Genius Hour kids in their school and around the world, so they take some time during the initial launch to check out other students’ blogs. Great idea!

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  • Nancy Erickson reminded us that a good brainstorm means all ideas go up: the good, the bad, the ugly and the outrageous are all fair game for a brainstorming board. We couldn’t agree more. It is all fair game in the initial brainstorm, and then we help students narrow it down to something that really is important to them. The next step is to help them design an inquiry question that will be focused enough for them to pursue.
  • Although many do this brainstrom on the chalkboard or with sticky notes on a bulletin board, Lindsey Matthews reminded us that a brainstorm can also be done digitally. She creates a padlet wall for them to post their ideas.
  • To help focus this brainstorm, Angela Rutschke recommends the following questions:
    • What breaks your heart?
    • What can make a difference?
    • What’s a problem you can solve?
    • What do you want to know more about/why?

We love these questions and have used similar ones when we have tried to encourage our students to try new projects that are more passion-based (instead of only focusing on pure inquiry-type projects). Shifting from what do you love to what breaks your heart about what you love can help students who know that they love horses, for example, but cannot think of a great project question to go with it.

More tips for new Genius Hour teachers

We ended the chat (as we often do) by asking our experienced Genius Hour teachers if they had any tips to share with newbies. Here is what they had to say:

  • Joanna Mackey reminded everyone that Wonderopolis has great questions to help inspire students and is a good place to start. We agree, especially with younger students.

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  • Amanda Dickey and Renee White wisely suggested you let go of control. Even though it can be stressful and everything may not always go as planned, you will see what great things the students do. Ms. Chouinard-Jahant said, “Plan well, but be open for a little chaos. Trust students. They really embrace Genius Hour and love the opportunity for choice.” We think you will find, as Cristal Edwards did, that “students can and will surpass expectations.”
  • Cheryl Hopkins suggests having patience and being willing to admit you don’t know. You will learn from and with the students. We agree! The “teacher as lifelong learner” will contribute to success in Genius Hour.

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  • Wendy Heffler gives the advice for teachers to be a facilitator during Genius Hour.
  • Haage says, “Don’t give up. It may be hard for students to grasp the concept, but keep at it.” Yes, indeed. If students don’t get it at first, please keep trying. They need more help and practice in this way of learning, which unfortunately is so foreign for too many of our students.
  • Angela Rutschke had lots of suggestions in one short tweet:
    • Be brave
    • Jump in
    • Get a buddy
    • Good driving questions are the engine
    • Check in often with groups
    • Try a short project for the first Genius Hour
  • Jennifer Abbey tells new Genius Hour teachers to go for it, as there is nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
  • Two practical bits of advice from Leah Chancellor:
    • Check in with students regularly
    • Help them keep organized

Finally, we loved this inspirational advice Lindsey Matthews gave:

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Here are some more resources shared during the chat:

We want to add one more thought

Enthusiasm is probably one of the best ways to get our students on board. Obviously students will love the autonomy, purpose, and other wonderful parts of Genius Hour, but in our experience students are most responsive to teacher enthusiasm.

Why not do a little Genius Hour project of your own and share it with your class? Show them your excitement for this, and we think it will be contagious. If you are pumped about it, they will likely feed off your energy. So have fun and share with your students.

We hope some of these tips will help you launch a successful Genius Hour in your classroom this year!

► You can participate in the #geniushour chat on Twitter the 1st Thursday of each month at 6 pm Pacific/9 pm Eastern. All you need is a Twitter account. For more participation options, try a tool like Tweetchat. If you need more help, here’s an educator-friendly guide.

Feature illustration: Lesley Buckner

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GHGuidebook-cvr-500Teachers Gallit Zvi and Denise Krebs are the authors of The Genius Hour Guidebook, brought to you by MiddleWeb and Routledge Eye on Education. Receive a 20% discount at the publisher’s website by using this code at checkout: MWEB1. Find lots more articles and free resources at the GHG book website.

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