By Jill Badalamenti for eSchool News January 26, 2016
Genius Hour projects may be open ended, but there are still some ground rules
What are you passionate about? What do you want to do more than anything in the world? Well I hope you said what you are doing right now. This is not always the case. Some people hate what they are doing. They may hate it because it pays too little, but being a teacher doesn’t make me very wealthy and I love what I’m doing. More importantly, people may hate their job because they would rather be doing something else. This is where I think we can do better in education.
As educators, we can help our students find and explore their passions. Once they discover what they’re truly passionate about, the learning and engagement will never stop. The best way for students to explore their passions is through Genius Hour.
Genius Hour isn’t new concept. Many teachers and businesses have been doing this for a while. Companies like HP and Google started “20 Time” so their staff could pursue passions projects and make their organizations stronger. Similarly, teachers have allowed students to read any book and present a book report in any format for a while now, giving them a chance to indulge their interests while learning. Of course, the true concept of Genius Hour is more open than a book report. It recognizes the need for students to have the freedom to explore their passions and not be restricted.
However, even with all this freedom, we still need some rules. The way I see it, the four rules to Genius Hour are: propose, research, create, and present. As long as your students are following this basic structure, they should have a successful Genius Hour experience. Here some tips for making those rules work in your classroom.
Let students explore their passions – First things first: make sure kids have enough time to explore what makes them passionate in the first place. After all, they need to know what their interests are in order to be able to explore them in depth. I use Thrively  as a starter. The kids use the site to take an assessment that will show them their strengths. They can then use this strength assessment to watch videos, choose a Genius Hour project, or look at events happening around them. Letting students explore their passions is an essential part of Genius Hour. Another way to help students explore themselves is to create a Wonder wall or a Problem-Solvers Wall. This is simply a space for students to put sticky notes with questions or problems the want to solve. These walls aren’t just impactful for the students. The teachers can learn a lot about their students by looking at their “wonders” and “problems”. Once the students have asked those questions and explored themselves they can now decide what they want their focus to be. I also use a worksheet  so students can get their ideas out about who they are and what their interests are. The next step is for each student to make a Project Proposal.
Create a project proposal – After being given time to explore their interests and discover their strengths, the students are ready to propose their project to me. This means they have to understand all of the parts from beginning to the end. I use this project proposal document , but it can take any form as long as students can tell you the topic, at least three inquiry-based questions, how they want to present, the materials they’ll need, as well as any help they will need from me. Some teachers have the students write in a journal that they keep for the whole project. That way they can reflect on the whole process from beginning to the end. After their project is approved by me they can begin the research phase.
Do research – The research phase is usually where kids start moving at their own pace. Some will research very quickly while others will take longer. I encourage my students to research in as many ways as they can. Here are a few ways they have researched: online (videos, websites, pictures), apps, books, magazines, surveys, and — my favorite — through experts. Indeed, every student should have an expert that they can talk to either in person, phone, Skype, or e-mail. This is one of the most important parts of the program because it lets students see the real world application of what they are researching. I use local community members and scour Twitter to find most of my experts.
Present and create – It’s important for kids to know they can present in any way they want to. They could do a video, poster, 3D model, TED Talk, picture book, painting, and the list goes on an on. To make it easier on the kids and the parents, I try to get all of the supplies they need. After they create, I have a rule that every student must present. This is the one way I can ensure every student learned something. Presentation for kids can be scary, so I let the students choose any method to present. They can choose to talk or just show the videos they made. One last tip with presentations is I always have Presentation Day. I make a big deal out of it and invite parents, staff, community members, and experts. I also set a time expectation so they aren’t too long. Lastly, I make sure I record every presentation. This provides great feedback for everyone involved.
Genius Hour is a great way for kids to start taking ownership of their own education. It’s a time about the kids, for the kids and conducted by the kids. I love being able to facilitate instead of teach. I even learn something new myself from all of the presentations. With these easy tips you should try something new today because, as Angela Maiers says, “You are a genius and the world expects your contribution.”