About a year ago, I decided to implement Genius Hour (also known as Passion Projects or 20% Time) in my classroom. I had no idea what was going to happen, which was a little scary and also a little exciting. I relied heavily on the expertise and resources of some incredible teachers, including Paul Solarz's amazing blog and the staggering amount of Genius Hour materials assembled by Joy Kirr on LiveBinders as well as Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom by AJ Juliani. We launched in October, setting aside 60 minutes every Tuesday, and ran all the way up until the second-to-last day of school (even after our graduation ceremony). Here are some of my reflections on what worked and what didn't work in my first year of bringing Genius Hour to my classroom.
First, it was immensely popular. Genius Hour became one of the most anticipated times of the week. Students would always look forward to this time and would beg for time elsewhere in the week if our regular Tuesday time slot had to be taken by an assembly or missed due to a snow day or delayed opening. As students reflected on their experiences late in the year, Genius Hour was one of the most popular recollections.
The students also learned a lot from each other. During the "pitch" phase, several of my students discovered PowToons and Emaze from looking at other students' pitches. With no real input from me beyond coaching, they taught each other how to use these two tools. They even taught me a few things! Throughout the process, students relied on each others' expertise on how to carry out research, how to shoot and edit video, and how to create and effectively deliver presentations.
Students also demonstrated immense growth in their oral presentation skills. I required each student to present their project to an audience of students, parents, and teachers. We viewed a bunch of TED talks (especially ones given by younger presenters) to examine not so much what they were saying (although it was interesting) but how they were saying it. We also used the "10 Commandments of TED Talks" (especially #4, Thou Shalt Tell A Story) and as a result, the students' speeches, by and large, were some of the best oral presentations I had ever seen from fifth graders. All of my students gave presentations, including ESL students who had come into school speaking no English at all!
Finally, I was amazed at the creativity and courage displayed by my students over the entire process. They developed projects ranging from research on flight, wolves, the history of comics, and beatboxing. One attempted to create homemade Starburst candies. Several students created items to sell in order to donate the proceeds to charity. In one particularly poignant turn of events, one student had been documenting her attempts to train her dog, but then the dog had to be returned to a shelter because it had become hostile to people, likely because it had been rescued from a puppy mill. Rather than completely start over, this student shifted her research to the dangers of puppy mills and how to raise awareness of this issue. The amount of courage displayed by this student in presenting on this topic of such emotional impact was tremendous. Over and over, students remarked how much they had surprised themselves in what they were able to do with their Genius Hour projects.
What Didn't Work So Well
This is not to say that there are definitely some things I'm thinking about tweaking for next year. Most importantly, I didn't start thinking about a deadline until well into the spring semester. I eventually set three presentation dates; one in the middle of May, one at the beginning of June, and one at the very end of the school year. This caused some projects to drag on long after they could have been presented. I had originally thought that students would be able to present whenever they were ready, but I think giving students a more defined end date will help them stay on task. I think this year I'm going to break the year up into two separate project sessions, one where they will present in December and another where they present in May.
I also think that I need to work more with helping the students plan their projects. Several students lost focus over the course of their projects because they weren't clear on the steps they needed to take. I think more work on the pitch phase of their projects will help with this, especially in outlining their process and the materials they will need.
Finally, the one thing that I think needed the most work was the reflective component of Genius Hour. I had made a requirement that students blog periodically about their process, but while a few of them did, that part got largely lost in the process. I think part of it is the fact that students weren't really used to thinking reflectively, and needed more guidance in that area. Next year, I'm going to make reflection a large part of the learning process, and not just for Genius Hour. Requiring at least one blog post a week (and getting feedback) will get them into the habit of writing about their thinking, and hopefully this will carry over into Genius Hour as well.
Overall, I'm really happy with how my first experience with Genius Hour worked out. Now that I've seen it in action, I have an idea of how I can improve the experience not just for my students, but for myself as well!
Here is a playlist of my students' Genius Hour presentations from this past year. Comments and suggestions are welcome!
5th grade teacher in Princeton, NJ. Passionate about education, technology, and the New York Giants!