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Education Trends, Teaching Tips & Tricks, Podcast Articles   |   Nov 6, 2016

How to use Genius Hour to transform student motivation and ignite creativity

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

How to use Genius Hour to transform student motivation and ignite creativity

By Angela Watson

Genius hour is a movement in schools that allows students to explore their own passions. The concept for Genius Hour is derived in part from the idea of “20% Time.” This is Google’s work structure for its employees, who are allowed to spend 20% of their time on projects they design and are interested in.

The idea is that when people are allowed to work on things they care about, their motivation for the job as a whole will increase. So that’s sort of the idea with Genius Hour, as well: empower kids to uncover their passions and skills and strengths–their genius, if you will–and their motivation and creativity and achievement will increase across the board.

What I wanted to do here is bring you the best of Genius Hour: to share what the most effective teachers are doing in this area, and HOW they’re doing it so you can learn from their experiences. aj-juliani So, I’ve invited AJ Juliani to share his observations.

AJ was a guest on Truth for Teachers way back in S1EP10 talking about how to overcome frustration due to constant change. Not only do I consider him a friend, but I also consider him to be one of the pioneers of the Genius Hour movement and a true expert on the topic.

AJ is very much in touch with classroom teachers who are implementing Genius Hour–he’s a former Innovation specialist and is the current Director of Technology & Innovation for Centennial School District just north of Philadelphia, PA.

So he’s spending a lot of time listening to teachers and watching what works and what doesn’t. AJ has created an entire online community of educators discussing Genius Hour, as well as an editable Genius Hour journal and an online Genius Hour course for teachers, so he can also speak from that context–supporting hundreds of teachers as they try out these ideas.

AJ has seen some really powerful transformations in student motivation and more because of Genius Hour, and he and I are going to discuss some best practices that will help you see those kinds of results in your classroom, too. 

Listen to AJ talk about Genius Hour in the podcast,
or read the highlights of what he shared below!

What Genius Hour is (and isn’t)

I think when people hear the term Genius Hour, 20% Time, or Passion Projects, they often think it’s free time where kids get to do whatever they want. But really Genius Hour is flipping the script on how we traditionally learn in schools by choosing a specific piece of content, and then having students learn a skill by going deeper through that content.

Genius Hour gives students the choice to choose their content, what they want to learn, what they’re interested about, but still hit the same skills and standards as you need to hit on the K-12 spectrum.

So Genius Hour is not just giving the keys to your kid and saying, “Go ahead in the car and drive wherever you want,” and it’s not sitting in the backseat, it’s sitting right next to them as they’re having their permit, as they’re first getting their license in drivers ed, and navigating alongside with them, helping them, guiding them, being that facilitator, and ultimately getting them to the destination they want to go to.

How often to hold Genius Hour

A lot of times at the elementary level, Genius Hour is once a week. That’s why a lot of people call it, specifically, Genius Hour, because they give an hour to it.

And Genius Hour really fits in well with nonfiction skills–the reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, standards that we see across the country, and really, around that world that you’re going to have in any type of standards-based education. So teachers are doing an hour a week.

And really, if you think about the steps in Genius Hour, you’re taking time to develop your interests, research your interests, and then make something based on that interest, and so you’re hitting all different types of standards, and it really fits into that literacy, that reading, that nonfiction piece at elementary level. Now other people have fit in this STEM piece, because it does fit in there with creation as well, but I love that nonfiction piece, because you are doing research.

At the middle school level, because we’re getting into subjects now, the topics can be more refined, and that’s where it starts getting called 20 Percent Time, because instead of just an hour, often people are doing 20 percent of the week.

So, when I did it at a middle school and a high school, I chose Fridays. We’re working hard Monday through Thursday, and Friday was time for Genius Hour. And that’s 20 percent of our week, right? We have 45 minutes, and that’s where we’re really diving into what they’re interested in, creating products that were solving problems. And so I’ve seen teachers around the world at that 6th-12th level, focus on more of a 20 percent time. It doesn’t always have to be an hour, once a week.

The other big thing I would say is that Genius Hour doesn’t need to be held all year long. Pick a 6, 8, or 10 week period that you’re going to Genius Hour, and then if you want do it again, do another project. It doesn’t need to be a full semester or a year. Sometimes that can really just drag on too long.

How to support students and hold them accountable during Genius Hour

One of the most challenging parts for teachers is figuring about how to sort of scaffold student learning without taking away the ability for them to direct their own learning.

So now let’s talk about how teachers should support students with Genius Hour, particularly if kids have not had a lot of opportunities to take charge of their learning–what kind of structure can teachers provide?

I really think that even though Genius Hour is all about choice in terms of what they want to learn, teachers have to have a definite structure of what the process of learning looks like. I always tell teachers, “Say a kid in your class wants to learn how to make their own video game. You may not be the expert in how to make a video game, but you’re still the expert learner in the classroom. You’re the master learner. You know what that looks like.”

And so there’s really kind of a five-step process to Genius Hour that I recommend in both of my books and courses and articles online.

It starts with look, listen, and learn. Having students look around them, figure out what they really want to learn, what problems they care about, and what things they’re interested in.

And from that stage, you go into them presenting to the entire class a very short Shark Tank pitch. So we all know the Shark Tank. If you want to be Mark Cuban for a day, like me, you do Shark Tank for one day, right? Basically the way it works is each student gets 30 seconds to a minute to share four slides or four pieces of paper to the rest of the class of what they’re actually going to do with their Genius Hour. So the four slides are:

  1. What you’re going to learn, and what you’re going to make
  2. Why you’re going to learn it, and why you’re going to make it, the reason behind it
  3. How you’re going to actually learn and make this–the steps you chose as a student
  4. What is going to be successful, in your mind?

So each student gets up, after they have their idea, and now they’re presenting to their peers exactly what they’re going to do. This gives that positive peer pressure and accountability without slapping a grade on it, and creates a situation where kids want to follow through with what they said they’re going to do.

After that, I always have students create an action plan. Now in kindergarten, first and second grade, it looks a lot different than it does in eighth, ninth and tenth grade. But the action plan is pretty simple. What are the steps that you’re going to take to learn it, and what are the steps you’re going to take to make whatever you want to make?

And then as a teacher, you work alongside them to come up with kind of some due dates, just like a project management, of when they’re going to get through those different action steps. Throughout the project, you can go in and check in with each student, having short little conferences, two- to three-minute conferences: “Hey, where are you in your action steps? How’s your plan going? Are you accomplishing it? Are you failing, but learning from what you’re failing at?”  You’re having students document it along the way. So they’re sharing what they learn, they’re sharing what they’re failing, and they’re also just sharing about the process.

The last thing that we typically do is have students present on what they learn and what they made and sharing their product with their class and with the world, inviting the community in, live streaming it, putting it out there. In the K-3 space, a lot of times this is a gallery walk, the wax museum concept, where you have kids around the room all presenting, you bring the people in.

But as you get to the older levels, that’s where you want to kind of put them on a stage, having that TED-type style presentation, three to five minutes where they’re sharing what they learned — what they failed at, what they succeeded at — with the world.

Grading and assessing work done during Genius Hour

Next let’s focus on issues of accountability–making sure students are actually learning and working. When I first did this, I was an 11th-grade teacher, and my biggest problem I having students who were just playing the game of school. You know you have those students that are following along but they’re not really interested in learning. They’re just interested in getting the grade.

So when I did Genius Hour, I kind of bucked the trend, and I said to my students, “You’re not getting a grade for this.” And it was like gasps of horror in my classroom. They were like, “Mr. J., I can’t believe you’re not giving us a grade. How are we going to do this? Can you just give me a worksheet?” They were freaking out.

Since then, I’ve done Genius Hour with teachers in elementary school and middle school, and in a lot of situations teachers felt like they needed to give a grade for some accountability. So what we use across the spectrum in Genius Hour is something called the GRIT Rubric. It’s a fantastic resource.

The GRIT Rubric is a process-driven rubric, so you’re not grading students on the final product, you’re just grading them on the Genius Hour process. And GRIT is an acronym. It stands for guts, resilience, integrity and tenacity.

And so you can grade them throughout the process on whether or not they are hitting those indicators of having guts, of having the tenacity of really going after a big problem, of having the integrity of not cutting corners and really having the resiliency when you fail of getting back up and trying again. People really love that GRIT Rubric. It was developed by the San Francisco College Track, and a lot of people have modified it, but that’s a great process-driven rubric that I’ve seen all the way from elementary and middle school to high school.

What to expect from students’ first Genius Hour projects at the elementary level

What I’ve found is the best way to kind of front-load and scaffold Genius Hour at the elementary level is to show all the students a video of Caine’s Arcade. Caine was a young boy whose dad owned a car shop, and Caine created an arcade entirely out of cardboard. He made different games out of cardboard and tickets and dispensers for tickets. And nobody really came to it, but eventually somebody came, loved it, and they had a flash mob of people that went to Caine’s Arcade.

When the students watch the video of this, they see that even something as small as cardboard can be used to create something great that is really going to solve a problem in the world, that’s going to impact people and make a positive impact.

And so what I see a lot of third, fourth, fifth graders doing is creating something and solving some type of problem that they care about, that’s more than just an interest, but something they care about.

We had a third-grade student in my school just last year that really wanted to do something about bullying that was going on. And so they created a positive sticky note campaign around the school where she got every single classroom in the entire school for each student to write positive notes on sticky notes, and then they would place them around the school. And as the students were walking through the hallways, they’d see positive reminders about different people, and it really wasn’t saying, “Don’t bully,” it was saying, “We can still be nice and make a positive impact.” So we see projects like that.

Another fourth-grader last year was really into gaming. They were excited about going home and playing video games like a lot of our young students are. And so a teacher worked with this student to say, “Hey, how would you like to make your own video game?” And they used the software Scratch, which is developed by MIT and really for students that are kind of 14 and under, and he developed his own video game using Scratch and looking at some tutorials online.

We’ve had students build entire cities and replicas of the school in Minecraft, and so really it’s just kind of taking what they’re interested in, what problems they want to solve, and then the skill sets that they have and kind of can grow on through Genius Hour to create some of those projects.

What to expect from secondary students’ projects (and pitfalls to avoid)

At the secondary level, it’s a little bit different, because students start getting a bit more self conscious. Third and fourth graders don’t have worries about sharing their dreams and attacking big problems, but when you get to eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh grades, you start getting students that are a little bit self conscious about putting themselves out there.

So the biggest pitfall that you’re going to have is students who are afraid to fail in front of their peers. They don’t want to try something and fail and have it documented in front of everybody.

And so one of the biggest things that teachers are doing, and I did in my classroom, is creating an epic failure board.  I took one of those bulletin boards that didn’t really have anything on it, and replaced it with what we called the epic failure board.

And every week when we came in for Genius Hour, I would put up there something that I failed at during the week, something I failed at as a teacher. And then students started putting up, “I was trying this project, and I failed doing this.” “I was getting these bands to run a fundraiser, and I failed doing this.” And so the celebration of failure led to students doing a lot of different types of products.

Examples of outstanding Genius Hour projects

At the high school level and the middle school level, you’re going to have students that are already really interested in some things. They’ve kind of started to figure out a little bit who they are, and so they dive into some things. I’ve had students that really care about doing something with cloning plants, and they’re trying to do a whole process with that. I’ve had other students that want to rebuild a motorcycle engine. And I’ve had students that wanted to choreograph a dance because they never had a chance to do that from start to finish. They were a dancer, but they never got to make their own dance.

One project in particular that really touched me is I had a young girl in my class who her aunt and her young cousin had a house fire, and they came to live with them at the house, and she had originally wanted to create her own sandals, and she was designing to make her own sandals, but she ended up changing her project. And she changed her project because she wanted to learn sign language, because her young cousin who was 4 years old was deaf, and because they were coming to live with them because of the house fire, she had never had the chance, she played sports, she worked, she never had a chance to learn sign language, so now Genius Hour gave her that chance to learn sign language. Now she could have conversations at her house with her cousin, and her final project was putting on a song, “I Hope You Dance,” with sign language for her cousin.

And it was just the most impactful thing. It was very personal to her, but it also was very personal to all of us as a class as we got to learn about her and her life and about her cousin. So I think Genius Hour is not always about just the projects that the students do, but also what we learn about each other in the classroom from the projects that they do.

What makes Genius Hour so powerful

We all live in this world where if I asked you to raise your hand if you know an adult that’s unhappy with their job, we’d all raise our hand. And sometimes that adult would be us, right? And there’s tons of people that work and just are getting by, and it’s because they’ve just kind of played this game, this game that if you do well in school, you’re going to get into a college, and then if you do well in college, you get an internship, and then you get a job and then you’ll get a house and live this life, but so many of us aren’t doing what we’re interested and passionate about. And it’s because we have 14,000 hours. I did the math, right?

We have over 14,000 hours that we see students in school K-12. How much of that time are we actually giving them choice in what they want to learn and what they want to do and what they want to make? And when they leave our doors in 12th grade, that’s all they have is choice.

So what makes Genius Hour powerful is giving students choice. Empowering them to make something and learn something that they’re interested in, but also at the same time preparing them for success outside of our walls, and actually giving them the opportunity to model what it’s going to be like to be a learner and a creator well beyond their school years.

I think that connection makes it very powerful, and it really is a different experience for a lot of students teachers. And because it’s different, it’s hard, right? It’s a challenge sometimes, and that also brings the community, the classroom together, because you know you’re doing something that actually matters and is actually changing personal lives, but also kind of an overall conception of what you can do inside of school.

And so we’ve seen Genius Hour and there’s great stories just around the country and around the world, but it all comes back to students actually having that choice in what they do, just like they’re going to have that choice for the rest of their lives.

How to get started with Genius Hour (and get support along the way)

It’s been six or seven years since I started Genius Hour, and I’ve been writing about it on my blog at ajjuliani.com. For six years I’ve been speaking around the country about Genius Hour. I wrote a book called Inquiry in Innovation in the Classroom about Genius Hour.

And every single time I get to work with a group of teachers about Genius Hour, it came back to the same questions and questions again: How do I assess this? What does it look like in my actual subject area? What does it look like with students my age? How can I get buy-in from the parents? How can I get buy-in from my colleagues, from my principal? There’s all these kinds of questions, and then there’s the questions of how do I actually run the project successfully so it doesn’t kind of fall flat and students don’t get the experience that I want.

Last year I was working with a group of teachers, and I realized that this school had paid a lot of money for me to come out and work with their teachers, and they’re getting a great experience, because they got resources and we walk step-by-step, every part of the process. One of the teachers just made a side comment saying, “I wish I had access to this online,” or “I wish I had this a year ago.” And it got me thinking that people needed something a bit more comprehensive. They needed something that was going to take them from the idea of Genius Hour to running it in their classroom and give them resources every single step of the way of that process that I shared earlier.

What’s in the Genius Hour Master Course

I created the Genius Hour Master Course, a step-by-step guide to rocking this project in your classroom, to not just running it, but to rocking this. And we now have over 1,400 people that are enrolled in this course, a private Facebook community where teachers get to talk about Genius Hour and share their strategies and ask questions.

It’s 10 modules long, with monthly webinars and over 70 videos (each one is about five to 10 minutes long.)  There’s a Genius Hour journal, which is basically a PowerPoint and student notebook that takes you every single step along the way of Genius Hour.

The Genius Hour Master Course not only gives you a kickstart, but actually walks you step-by-step through the resources and provides support from other educators from around the world.

Genius Hour Master Course

On sale (reduced from $150 to $125 from now through August 16th)

Use the coupon code ANGELA to save an additional 20% so the total price is $99!

Thank you so much for sharing this helpful info on Genius Hour, AJ! I truly believe this master course is the missing piece for a lot of teachers. There are lot of teachers who want someone to take out the guess work so they can focus on the really rewarding part of this endeavor, which is watching kids uncover their genius.

With the course, all logistics are taken care of so teachers can focus on kids. Learn more at geniushourmastercourse.com (which is a special link just for readers of this blog, and by purchasing there, I get a small commission off the course at no cost to you.) Don’t forget to use the coupon code ANGELA to save an additional 20%! 

Our job as teachers is not to prepare students for something, our job as teachers is to help students prepare themselves for anything. –AJ Juliani

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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