By Donna Harvey

Creativity takes many forms and the maker movement has provided many teachers and students opportunities to invite creativity back into the classroom. This is the challenge I presented to my teaching team before the 2016-17 school year when I suggested finding a way to make Genius Hour, a time designed to encourage student agency and creativity, available to our Sophomores in the coming school year. My team bought in and we set out on the journey of trying to figure out how to provide our students with the chance to work on their own passions in a meaningful way. We are now working our way through the second year of the program and traveling a slightly less bumpy road than last year. Here is what I learned…

Lesson #1: Get support from your admin team and carve out time in your schedule.

In order to make this work, we needed a lot of flexibility in our schedule and consent from the administration to assign our time as we fit. Our team is very lucky in that we have a significant amount of autonomy over our students daily schedule and support from our administrators to make decisions that are good for our students. Also, because our school is focused on creating student-centered personalized learning opportunities, this fits perfectly into our mission. Each sophomore teacher committed to using one 60 minute period in our 6-day rotation to provide students with the opportunity to direct a project or learning experience of their choice.

As a result of this flexibility and support, all 180 students in our sophomore class have a common yet personalized learning experience. For teachers in schools that may not have as much flexibility as we do with our schedule, I would recommend meeting with your admin team to sell them the idea of Genius Hour. We started with an article from Edutopia about Genius Hour and personalized learning, and a video that explained what we wanted to do with our students. Once we presented the benefits we expected and connected it to one of our school goals, we could justify the 60 minute period we were reassigning and got the support to move forward.

Lesson #2: Look for resources and tools that already exist and make them work for you and your students.

For us, Genius Hour was messy and we made a lot of mistakes along the way. Luckily, there are a lot of resources available to help with getting started. Once we had the scheduling issues worked out, figuring out how to get started and what resources to use was a daunting task. We wanted to see students choose something that they were passionate or curious about and work independently exploring whatever they chose. That being said, we needed to be able to give them a structure and resources that helped us track their learning and progress but we didn’t want to stifle their creativity.

Ultimately, we decided not to reinvent the wheel and settled on a design thinking approach inspired by LAUNCH, a book by John Spencer and A.J Juliani. It gave us a place to start and steps along the way to track but it was not the only resource we used. The  Genius Hour site offers a collection of teacher resources including a free webinar by the authors of LAUNCH to help you get started. If you are looking for student resources you can take a look at the Genius Hour Wiki which includes a variety of Articles, videos, sample presentations, and presentation tools. Blend Education and Innovative Teaching Academy both offer online courses that focus on Genius Hour to help teachers get started.

Lesson #3: Provide more structure and guidance initially, allow for a gradual release that leads to independence and success.

For our high school students, we needed to move from a product-focused model in year one to a process driven experience this year to provide more meaning and weight to the learning. As I mentioned before, we wanted our students to choose something and run with it, to explore and learn independently to create something they found valuable. Unfortunately, we discovered that our students didn’t actually know how to direct their own learning without guidance from adults. It was a big learning curve for everyone. We discovered that students needed more guidance and scaffolding then we realized and we are making those changes this year.

We are starting with a plan to determine when students will have to demonstrate their learning as well as additional scaffolded steps to help them make good use of their time and track their progress as they work. When we first met with our students, we told them when they would be expected to complete their first defense of their learning, which happened to be January. Similarly, we showed them a video from Edutopia of a student defending her learning so they could see what it looked and sounded like. We are also meeting regularly to discuss where our students are, what they need to do next and create resources and guidelines for each new step. This is something we hope will be beneficial for them and will help us keep track of how our students are using their time, which was something we didn’t have a plan for last year.

Lesson #4: Collect feedback from your students, listen to what they have to say and be open to revising the process.

This might be the most important step. Providing students with a chance to share their thinking and experiences and then acting on their suggestions is another important step towards student engagement and empowerment which are essential to Genius Hour’s success. My plan is to use exit cards, tech tools like Mentimeter and Google Form to collect feedback at least twice during each of the project cycles as well as after the first demonstration and at the end of the year so that we can make adjustments as we go and not just at the end.

Lesson #5: Define success for each student by looking for evidence of growth and improvement, don’t just focus on completing a product.

Encouraging students to follow their passions and explore topics that are truly important to them meant that we needed to step back and recognize that what each student created a product could look very different. Success for one student was building a working speaker that we could use during a presentation while another student collected photos of special effect makeup she learned to apply. Due to these many and varied topics and products, we focused on skills that students could transfer to other aspects of their lives and learning. This is a great opportunity to talk to students about persistence, grit and transferable skills like creativity, communication, self-direction, and collaboration. Our students also benefitted from having peer mentors that helped them learn new skills.

All in all, Genius Hour has been a challenging undertaking but well worth the time and effort. Personalized learning has allowed some of our students to do really interesting work exploring topics that mattered to them. We have also been able to reach students who may not be as successful in traditional classes and helped them gain skills that will benefit them moving forward. Finally, this has helped us as teachers build relationships with our students and learn about the things that matter to them which will help increase student agency. It has been a bit of a rollercoaster but definitely a win-win experience.

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Donna Harvey-Moseley is a Social Studies teacher at Sanborn Regional High School, follow her on Twitter @MrsMoseley116


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