Friday, June 3, 2016

Tweaking Genius Hour: Twice the Genius

I haven't published an article this blog for almost a year. This is what happens when there aren't due dates....  The main reason I haven't written in so long is that I wasn't satisfied with how Genius Hour went first semester (Fall 2015) so I didn't write about it. If you examine my previous posts, you'll notice that I'm constantly tweaking it.  This time, however, I was so disappointed with it that I had to make more substantive tweaks. So I made some changes to Genius Hour second semester and I needed to see how it went before I wrote about it. 


Over the last few years, I've noticed that there has been a growing increase in the advocacy of the benefits of failure, being wrong, facing adversity, etc.  In 2008, JK Rowling (author of the Harry Potter series) gave a commencement address at Harvard she called "The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination."  The obvious implication in this speech was that she had once been a failure and was now wildly successful.  Self proclaimed "wrongologist" Kathryn Schulz, in Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, argues that embracing being wrong is a good thing and can change ones understanding of the world, relationships, and self. She widely explores different realms of the social sciences to demonstrate how the rigidity of being right and stuck in one's way is detrimental to individuals and society.

This is not really a new idea. Michael Jordan, the patron saint of overcoming failure, has this well known quotation:

Image result for failure

But the idea is even older than the 1980s and 1990s.  After all, Socrates, the famous philosopher, in the late 400s BC, believed that:

Philosophers seem like people who would know everything, but Socrates's believed he was smart because he knew what he knew, but more importantly, he knew what he didn't know.

So the greatest basketball player and philosopher agree: they were successful because understood and overcame their failures.


So back to Genius Hour... I wouldn't call Genius Hour first semester a failure, but it had certainly grown stale.  This, of course, defeated the whole purpose of Genius Hour so I needed to make a few changes.  After first semester, I did some reflecting and decided to make four major changes to Genius Hour second semester.

1. Twice a Semester: Instead of Genius Hour once a semester, I implemented it at the end of third quarter AND at the end of fourth quarter.  The reason for doing this was to provide students the opportunity to learn from the failures of their third quarter project in order to avoid them on the fourth quarter Genius Hour project.  Moreover, doing it twice would make students more familiar and comfortable with the process.  When there was only one Genius Hour project in a semester, if students made mistakes there was no opportunity to apply skills they had learned during the project on a subsequent one.  Plus there was little motivation to reflect upon their work since it was a one and done project.  This semester, I noticed a dramatic improvement in the fourth quarter projects since students could learn from their mistakes and were more familiar with the process which allowed them to focus on the content of their topic.

2. Fewer Work Days When I implemented Genius Hour in the spring of 2015 and the first semester of 2015, students had about eleven work days and four days for presentations.  The first time I gave students such a long, uninterrupted stretch of time to work and research in the spring of 2015, it went so well that it was the topic of my last Genius Hour post. For the first semester this year, it didn't go as swimmingly because students wasted a lot of time.  Also, because there were going to be two Genius Hours a semester, it made sense to cut back the number of days.  Each of those work days had a short and specific task that helped students move in the right direction (If there's crappy weather this summer, I might right a post about it.  Otherwise, you might have to wait until the fall to hear about these tasks).  I settled on seven work days and one day for a gallery walk.  It turned out to be the absolutely perfect amount of time.

3. Gallery Walks: The capstone to previous Genius Hours was a presentation to the class about their topic.  Though students had a wide variety of presentation tools, most chose to stand in front of the class and read a power point.  Students hated standing up there (I'm still not sure why so many chose to do something they could have avoided) because most people do not like public speaking, I was bored out of my mind listening four days of students monotonally reading presentations, and students were bored out of their minds (though to their credit, they were very respectfully and politely bored).  That I was struggling to help students break out of this rut was one of my biggest single frustrations.  And since I'd done Genius Hour for a couple years, many students who I had had in previous classes had come to associate Genius Hour with the presentations instead of an opportunity to share what they had learned or discovered. (I think I just set a record for the most uses of "had" in a sentence.) Thus, there wasn't as much passion for Genius Hour as there should be.

This semester, instead of presentations, students designed posters of their topic.  Most used Smore though a few students used other poster programs.  Students then hung their posters in the hallway so that other students could read and examine their project in a gallery walk.  If I had been on top of my game, I would have taken pictures or video recorded a portion of the gallery walk (so you're stuck with a random video in the previous link).  I didn't take any pictures because I'm not good at taking pictures.  When I say I'm not good at taking pictures, I don't mean that I don't take quality pictures. When I say I'm not good at taking pictures, I mean that I don't remember to actually take pictures.  I'm sure some students took some snaps of the process but those are long gone by now. (Before I started my travel blog, I rarely took pictures on vacation.  In fact, the main reason I take pictures on vacation now is for my travel blog.  I'll definitely be taking some pictures in August when I go to Chile again and the Summer Olympics in Rio.)

The gallery walk was a hit.  I did a poll after the third quarter Genius Hour and it was nearly unanimous that students preferred the gallery walk to presentations.  It wasn't a public speech, it was interactive, and it was interesting for students to see their peers' work.
4. Competition

The final major change I made to Genius Hour second semester was that students competed for prizes in four categories:

Most Interesting Topic
Most Informative Poster
Most Visually Appealing Poster
Best Hashtags (It's a Twitter-type thing.)

During the gallery walk, each student had a ballot and they voted for which poster they thought was the best. The competition gave students a little extra motivation, but the major reason I did it was to provide a purpose to the gallery walk.  If I had just had students look at each others' work, the gallery walk would have lasted about thirty seconds.  As it was the gallery walk still didn't last as long as it should have, but students did inspect each others' more closely fourth quarter.


Genius Hour in my classroom has constantly evolved and it looks almost nothing like it did when I first had students do it.  Now there are gallery walks, two Genius Hour projects a semester, and competition.  The focus of Genius Hour is supposed to be students' interests and passion.  So if the teacher does not provide the proper structures, the purpose of Genius Hour can get lost in the process.  To state it less elegantly, if the process sucks, then the students will not enjoy Genius Hour.  I am happy that I have established a framework and set of procedures that provides students the opportunity to explore in more depth a topic that excites them.  I expect that I will continue to adapt this framework and set of procedures because what is effective now, will not always be effective.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Tweaking Genius Hour: Creating Flow

Three weeks ago I updated this blog for the first time since January.  I have two very good reasons for the four month delay (I don't have any good reasons for the current three-week gap).  First, my students worked on Genius Hour for three consecutive weeks in May so there weren't any Genius Hour happenings upon which to comment or analyze from January to May.  Second, a teaching schedule doesn't work that well with my writing style.  When I was I was an undergrad at Iowa or a graduate student at Ole Miss, my best writing always happened between midnight and 3 am and was done Hemingway style.  The major reasons for this is that there were no distractions at that time of night, I liked the idea that I was working when other people were sleeping or partying (which made me feel like I was getting something done when others weren't), and I was able to get into a groove and write and rewrite and write and rewrite.  If I wrote until 3 am at Iowa, it was no big deal because I probably didn't have class until late morning (or if I had a 9:30 am class at Schaeffer Hall, I could get up 9:17, leave Hillcrest at 9:22, and arrive right at 9:29.)  At Ole Miss, I only had one morning class ever....And there was plenty of time for naps.  Staying up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning doesn't work as well for a teacher so sometimes it makes it tougher for me to find time to write.


Interestingly, the two reasons for not updating the blog more frequently are both related to psychological work by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (It's a Hungarian name. And there will be a spelling quiz at the end of the blog.) who emphasized the importance of "flow." Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."*  This is not a new concept since there have always been instances when people have completely involved in something and lost track of everything else.  Csikszentmihalyi originally studied flow because he wanted to understand why artists got lost in their work, but he found that it had practical applications to other areas of life.

Other psychologists have taken up his work, and one of them, Owen Schaffer, developed seven prerequisites to promote flow.
"1.     Knowing what to do
2.     Knowing how to do it
3.     Knowing how well you are doing
4.     Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)
5.     High perceived challenges
6.     High perceived skills
7.     Freedom from distractions"[22]
(Yes, I got this from Wikipedia.)


This semester, I decided to change the structure of my Genius Hour.  The past two semesters in which students did Genius Hour, they usually did it every Friday during the course of the semester.  This semester, they researched or shared everyday for three consecutive weeks.  I found this immensely beneficial for several reasons

Benefit #1 (content-related): They have an established base of knowledge which helps in selection of topics since they will have hopefully had their interest sparked by something during the course of the semester that they would like to explore in depth.

Benefit #2 (logistic-related): May is a crazy month at school with lots of extra-curricular activities going on, students missing class, and me missing class for tennis meets.  Since there is a lot of self-pacing in Genius Hour, students can more easily make up the time they missed on their own.  And it is the easiest sub plans ever...

Benefit #3 (structure-related/flow-related): When students did Genius Hour once a week, it sometimes took a couple weeks for them to remember "what to do" and "how to do it."  If they didn't know those two, they certainly didn't "know how well [they] are doing" or "where to go."  Thus, there was sometimes more confusion than there should have been.  This semester, however, because students had Genius Hour everyday, they didn't forget as much "what to do," "how to do it," and "where to go" because they were doing it everyday.  Students seemed to work much better, more efficiently, and get into a flow.

I wish there was a picture or story to share to illustrate how students were more able to get into a flow and how much more effective Genius Hour is when student have three consecutive weeks to work rather than fifteen or so sporadic days.  Unfortunately, I don't have solid evidence so you'll just have to take my word for it...


EPILOGUE: Being Distracted While Being Entertained
Author's Note: I was originally going to use the following content as part of the original but I went in a different direction.  Because I find these anecdotes so illuminating about the state of society, I decided to include them.

Last fall I was at a Gary Allan concert at the Clay County Fair.  For the last song (before the encore), he sang his signature song, "Watching Airplanes," which I had been waiting for all concert.  My parents and I were seated next to the aisle.  During the middle of the song, in the row in front of us, people from the center of the row wanted to leave which caused everyone else in that aisle to become distracted during the middle of the song.  I noted that I was fortunate they weren't in my row, but I didn't think too much about it because I'd waited the whole concert to enjoy this song and I wasn't about to let some idiots ruin it.

After the concert, my parents and walked back to our cars and we talked about the concert and how great it was (it was phenomenal!).  Then I brought up the mid-song leavers and I started to get mad and annoyed even though they were long gone.  I commented to my parents that if they had been in my row that I would have told them to "Sit back down. I've waited for this song the whole concert and you're not going to ruin it."  There also would have been some expletives in what I would have told them.

This incident reminded me of another concert "incident" a few years earlier.  Craig Morgan was playing at Preservation Plaza at Arnold's Park and we were listening from the boat.  He has about 6-8 well known songs, so a lot of the songs he played early in the concert weren't songs that were recognizable from the radio.  During the course of the string of unknown songs, one of my friends complained that the concert was boring or that it sucked or made some sort of immature complaint.  Later in the concert, when Morgan started playing his hit songs, what was my friend doing?  Talking on his phone... so I said something to him along the lines of "You were complaining about the songs earlier and now that he's playing good songs you're on your %@#%& phone!" There was a moment of uncomfortable silence and then everyone resumed enjoying the concert because they knew I was right.


Spell the last name of the psychologist mentioned in this piece.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Tweaking Genius Hour: Properly Framing It

In the picture below, it looks like there are some bored or distracted students working on computers in a classroom.  In actuality, they are working on Genius Hour, they are participating in a revolution, and they are contributing to The End of Power.



When students become frustrated about school, their complaints frequently fall into a few broad categories.  They question the purpose of what they're doing, what they're expected to do is not understood (sometimes this is the students' fault, sometimes the teachers'), they believe they are being treated unfairly, they're frustrated by the lack of independence in school, etc.  To me, one of the most enjoyable parts of teaching is preventing many of those complaints or providing a quick counter to them by making everything I do in the classroom purposeful.  Over the years, I have constantly refined and tweaked lessons, lesson titles, content within lessons, order of lessons, activities to learn content, length of lessons, types of assessments, assessments questions, length of assessments, feedback, assessment due dates, assessment redo policy, late work policy, discipline policy, etc.  These refinements are based on theories advanced in educational literature, popular social science literature, historical literature, and personal experience in the classroom.

When I started Genius Hour in the Spring semester of 2014, I had a theoretical basis (see my first post on this blog), but no experience doing it so I was bound to make some mistakes.  Overall, I thought that Genius Hour went well the first time students did it in my classroom in the Spring of 2014, but I made changes by limiting students' choice and providing them a clear template for the Fall of 2014.  I thought it went better in the Fall of 2014, but there were still changes to be made since I had some students this semester (Spring 2015) who had done Genius Hour before asking "Do we have to do Genius Hour?"  It was only a few students (who, for the record, I know are chronic complainers) making these complaints, but regardless, I reflected about why there any complaints.  After all, students should enjoy the opportunity to pursue a topic that interested them, and yet some were not enthusiastic about it.  Therefore, I realized there must be something I could do to make it more interesting.  And when I teach a topic that students don't end up finding interesting, I usually attribute it to me not setting an interesting or relevant purpose for the lesson.  So when a few complaints rolled in, I tried to figure out what I could do differently to frame Genius Hour.  In the week before introducing Genius Hour, I tried to develop a new way to frame it, but I couldn't develop something that I liked so I went with the old way.

The way that I have introduced Genius Hour to students is with this short video clip.  It's not really my approach or philosophy because the guy in the video is a sixth grade teacher, but like some old habits, I use it because I've always used it.  Having watched this video 20-30 times, I nearly have it memorized so I usually don't pay attention to it.  Most of the time, I'm watching the students to make sure that they're paying attention.  But for some reason during one of the periods last week when I was showing it, I thought to myself "If I was a student and didn't know what Genius Hour was, what would I think of Genius Hour?  Would I really think it was big of a deal as the guy in the video makes it out to be?" I didn't really answer the question because my mind moved on to thinking about me in high school.  Then I thought about some of the things I'd done or written about in junior high and high school.  There was a report on the ATF attack on the Branch Davidians in 7th grade, the Battle of Gettysburg in 8th grade, a report on Muhammad Ali in 9th or 10th grade, a report on on something about Russia, and my masterpiece of high school writing "A Comparative Analysis of the Dystopian Worlds in 1984 and A Brave New World."  Furthermore, in my senior year, my literature teacher let me take 4th period Mythology as independent study because she knew that the class would not challenge me enough.  She gave me a few big assignments with lots of choice and I had the freedom to work on them.  How was what I did in high school from the fall of 1994 to the spring of 1998 any different than what my students are doing in Genius Hour?  Isn't Genius Hour just a fancy name for something good teachers have always done?  Now I wasn't just questioning how I would frame Genius Hour, but whether it was that unique.

Fortunately my doubt about Genius Hour or the problem of framing it didn't last long as my questions were soon answered by a book I'm reading at home (courtesy of the Remsen Public Library) called The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn't What It Used To Be by Moises Naim. Naim's claim is that because of three related revolutions-- the More Revolution (people today have access to more goods and information), the Movement Revolution (people can move much more easily and freely than in the past), and the Mentality Revolution (people expect to have more and move more easily and freely)--that it is harder for centralized, hierarchical, top-down institutions to assert their force, values, ideas, or rewards on people.  Because of these changes, institutions have to adapt and change and understand that they are dealing with a different marketplace.  He focuses on business, military, religious and political power and how it is being lost, but his theory can be transferred to the classroom as well.

Every teacher at ELC has this poster hanging up in their classroom.

It's been hanging there for a few years so I don't even notice it anymore.  For some reason, however, The End of Power made me think of it, in particular the concept of the student-centered classroom.  In a student-centered classroom, students are active learners engaged in acquiring knowledge and performing critical thinking.  This is in contrast to the teacher-centered classroom that dominated the twentieth century in which students are passive recipients of information that they will later regurgitate and then forget forever.  (Most classrooms are actually a blend, but proponents of student-centered classrooms often portray teacher-centered classrooms that way in order to create a straw man.  This teacher-centered straw man is EXTREMELY ahistorical (as my experience as a student suggests), but that's another another blogpost for an entirely different blog.) Regardless, one of the goals of Genius Hour is to make classrooms more student-centered and this fits perfectly with Naim's observations.  In all areas of life, loci of power are losing it.  In the realm of education, teachers are losing power and students are acquiring it.  So my students on Chromebooks in the picture above are participating in a student-centered classroom.  They are slowly and surely acquiring more and more power at the expense of their teacher through the selected of their topic, content, and method of presentation.

And now I have a way to frame Genius Hour for the Fall 2015 semester (and perhaps I will still reframe it this semester).  A question that challenged me greatly was, in the end, so simple to answer.  Instead of showing that video, I will frame Genius Hour within the context of the gradual diminishment of institutional power, whether it is CEO's, the Pope, presidents, dictators, generals, superintendents, principals, and especially teachers.  Next time I introduce Genius Hour, the first thing students will do is analyze the START poster to understand the difference between the student-centered classroom that Genius Hour creates and the teacher-centered classroom of the past.  Then they will read an excerpt from Naim's The End of Power to understand that what they are doing is not just something teachers have them do, but that they are participating in profound historical changes.

EPILOGUE: Framing History Properly.
Author's Note: I was originally going to use the following content as part of the original essay since they also deal with the issue of framing. However, I realized it didn't exactly fit.  Because I enjoy using these pictures in class so much I didn't want to waste such interesting content or writing.

I use this next picture in class.  What is happening in this picture? What do you see?

To most people, there is no context in which to frame this picture this picture so it's just an old picture of some farmers with some horses and tractors.  Thus, without proper framing the picture has no meaning.  At this point, a frustrated student might be wondering "Why are we looking at this picture?"

When I tell students this is picture that hangs in my living room and it is of my maternal grandfather, Harold Dunn (Gramps) (left-center), his brother Darrell (right-center), and their father Peter (far-right) at their farm outside Meriden, Iowa in the 1930s, then they immediately recognize that it has sentimental value to me.  And besides the fact that it is old (relatively, speaking anyway), my feelings of sentimentality probably wouldn't be enough to provide a justifiable purpose for using this picture in class.

There is a third way of framing, this picture, however.  Besides the sentimental value, I love this picture because in it I see the transition from the Era of the Agricultural Revolution to the Industrial Revolution.  Horses, a major source of power for humans for 5000 years are visibly being replaced by tractors.  Though horses were in the process of being replaced as a power source, they still command the center of the image.  It is the sons, whose bodies have not been worn down by years of repeated toil, however, you give primacy to their horses.  Because they can still readily meet the physical demands of agrarian life, they still relate to the horse and the shared struggle of biological beings to use muscles to produce power.  Off to the side, however, is the wise father, whose body has strained under the burden of agriculture who values the tractor and the use of fossil fuels to produce power.

When framed this way, the picture now has a purpose within the classroom and acquires significant meaning to students.  They can see one of the real-life changes in the way humans lived because of the shift from muscle power to fossil fuel power during the Industrial Revolution.


One family picture is probably enough to illustrate my point about the importance of framing, but let's play the game again. What is happening in this picture? What do you see?

This picture, like the previous one, could just be some American tourists in China with no meaning.  On another level, there is sentimental value in the picture if it happens to be your sister, Lindsay, and your brother-in-law/best friend, Garv, in Beijing.

Once again, however, there is a way to see this picture.  In the 20th century, China went through three major revolutions, all of which are represented in this picture.  Just to the left of Garv's head (as you're looking at it) and just below Mao's head there are tourists entering the Forbidden Palace.  It was "forbidden" because before 1911 it was the exclusive domain of the Chinese imperial family and retinue.  The imperial family was removed from power in 1911-1912, however, and the Forbidden Palace is now open to tourists.  A second revolution, the Communist Revolution, which lasted from 1949-1970s, is represented by Mao's head, the dictator who led the revolution.  The final revolution, the Western Revolution, is represented by the presence of Garv and Lindsay, Americans, in Beijing.  After the Communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the US did not recognize the Communist Chinese government.  In the 1970s, however, the US and China opened diplomatic relations allowing Americans from Forrest Gump to Garv and Lindsay to visit the "land of China."

Again, an historical topic that could be devoid of meaning or purpose for students unless it is framed the proper way.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Tweaking Genius Hour: The Benefit of Providing a Template

First semester is over and my students have completed another batch of Genius Hour projects.  Overall, they were excellent.

In my last post, I discussed how providing students parameters in selecting a topic was very beneficial.  Another way I tweaked Genius Hour was to provide students a template of six simple and broad requirements for World History and seven for Geography, plus a particular approach for structuring the presentation.

Though soundly based on research, my decision to implement Genius Hour last year was somewhat epiphanic in that I decided to do it and implement in less than a week.  Thus, I sometimes made things up as I went along. And I because I'd never had students do Genius Hour, I did not know how to properly give students the guidance they needed.  There were trials and error as I went along, but I learned a lot as I went along. When students presented their projects last May, I took notes on problems or issues I saw.  Here is the list of my observations:

Before implementing Genius Hour this semester, I reviewed my chicken scratches of notes from the previous semester.  Based on these observations, I devised a format and requirements that would guide students with their research.  In World History, each presentation required:

1. A quotation
2. A video clip
3. A picture
4. An event or story
5. A question to provoke thought
6. A big idea

Moreover, for each of the items above, I required students to provide an explanation of why they selected the quotation or video clip or whatever.  Finding one of the above items isn't very difficult but providing a justification for why they selected a particular picture or event was much challenging.  It was the process of EXPLAINING their selection in which students really thought about their topic.  For example, if a student's project was about Julius Caesar's conquests of Gaul and Britain, an appropriate picture would be a picture of Caesar in military dress instead of a picture of Caesar in a toga or being stabbed to death.

One of the problems with providing this structure is that it limits students' creativity in the presentation.  I'm not concerned with creativity, however.  I'm interested in historical explanation, and by providing this structure, the historical explanations that students provided was much better than the previous year.  In fact, based on the success of providing students a template, I'm adding three items to the template: a map, background information, and the significance of the person, event, or topic.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Tweaking Genius Hour: The Benefits of Limiting Choice

Genius Hour is about finished this semester and I realize I've completely neglected my blog.  So I'll try to post three or four times the rest of this semester on some of the big impressions I've observed.

Last semester (Spring 2014), I implemented Genius Hour in my Civics, World History, and Geography classes.   One of the components of Genius Hour is to provide student choice over the subject matter.  Last year, I learned, however, that there could be too much choice.

I'd already known that too much choice can be bad, however.  Though I'd never read it, I was aware of a book called The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz (he also has a Ted Talk) in which he argues that too much choice paralyzes someone.  He argues, instead, that it would better off that instead of dozens of options of shampoo at Wal-mart or 5000 pairs of shoes on Amazon that we only had four or five.  Also, because a person is aware that there is so much choice, he or she often regrets the choice they do make because there seems to be so many other appealing alternatives.  Any limiting of choice, however, creates a tricky paradox in the realm of the political economy because the choices are available because there is a market for them.  People want choice and even though that choice can lead to some negative consequences, the alternative of too much control can be much worse (ask anyone who has lived under communism).

Fortunately, I'm not dealing with a national political economy, I'm dealing with my classroom.  And in my smaller world, things are much clearer and Schwartz's paradox doesn't have the same type of deleterious consequences.  Last year, when I introduced Genius Hour, some students were overwhelmed because they could choose any topic that interested them.  In fact, it took some students two or three Genius Hour periods to settle upon a topic and other students changed their topics several times.  Last year, I quickly noticed this was a problem, but since some students had had no problem with the wide range of choice, had selected their topic (many of which were very interesting and creative), and were eagerly researching it, I decided not to construct parameters mid-stream.  Instead, I simply helped those students who were struggling, narrow their choice.

This year, in order to prevent students from being overwhelmed, while still providing them a wide range of choice, I limited them to the subject we were studying.  For example, in World History students were limited to topics about World History before the year 1600 or in Geography they were limited to studying a particular place in the world.  Besides providing some boundaries, I had students do a couple activities that would help them identify a topic.  First, I had students examine the table of contents and write down five historical eras or topics that interested them.  From that list, I had students look through those particular chapters or sections.  As they examined their topics, they gradually narrowed it down.  As they were doing this, I circulated the room helping students that needed it.  At this stage in the process, students didn't need a tremendous amount of help.  In fact, they were very eager in pursuing this part of the task.

Once they selected the topic, I wanted to help them narrow their topic.  For example, instead of a student doing a project on Ancient Rome or Australia, I wanted to narrow it down to a particular person or event.  For the most part, this was not an issue and most students quickly arrived at a topic, some completely on their own and some with a little guidance from me.

I will continue doing Genius Hour in my classroom next semester and I will most definitely provide some very broad guidelines for students in the selection of their topics because of how successful it has been this semester.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Genius Hour Wrap-up


So how did Genius Hour finish up?  Better than my regularity in updating the blog.  I know that the key to being successful at blogging (or anything else) is consistency.  Oops.  Regardless, I am now writing this in the Atlanta airport on the Fourth of July as I wait for a flight to Santiago, Chile to see my sister and brother-in-law.

The Genius Hour projects can be classified into three major groups: a couple unmitigated disasters, most that were pretty good, and a dozen or so that were frickin' awesome ("frickin' awesome" is the highest form of praise I can heap on anything that is praise-worthy).

Some of the most important lessons were learned by me.  As I observed and assessed the hundred or so presentations, I not only provided feedback to students but catalogued the common things my students did poorly and how I would make changes to make next semester's genius hours better.  Among the ways I could organize Genius Hour to make it better for students is my list is at school.  And besides I need to save some material for future blog posts.  So in the mean time, I would like to highlight two projects, both extremely well done, and on the same topic--music--that reached completely differed conclusions.

One project explored four different popular genres of music in United States: rock, country, rap, and blues. For each genre, the student first presented the common stereotypes associated with the genre and then presented how the stereotype was not accurate.  For her section on country music, she played a twangy song and showed pictures of musicians and fans in cowboy hats, boots, buckles, etc.  Then she showed some country music artists and fans (including me) and played some music that wasn't so stereotypically country.  My brief description does not do justice to the brilliance of this project in all regards: its concept, research, presentation (her classmates and I were riveted), and most importantly, theoretical implications of her findings (whether she intended this or not).  The implications of this project is, obviously, that stereotypes, when scrutinized do not always portray an accurate picture--an especially important idea for high school freshmen and sophomores to understand.

Ironically, another great presentation reached a completely opposite conclusion, but it was great because of the concept.  The project explored whether or not Taylor Swift's stereotype as someone who sings mostly break-up songs was true.  The student listened to all sixty-four songs on her four studio albums and categorized her songs based on four categories.  She found that of the sixty-four songs, about half were break-up songs, which seemed to her (and me) that Taylor Swift, indeed, sings about break-ups.  A LOT.

One of the reasons I highlighted these two projects is that they were both from the same class period even though the students had no idea what the implication of their projects would mean.  As the Taylor Swift project was being presented (a day or two after the music genre project), I was jumping out of skin because I knew its implications could promote an interesting (and informal and unplanned (always the best kind)) class discussion when juxtaposed with the presentation on music genre stereotypes.  Are stereotypes inaccurate?  Are they based on truth?  It was a good discussion that went in many directions.  And like the best questions, there was no correct answer as long as opinions were well-considered and supported with evidence.

Though the spontaneous, teachable moments are always the best, a teacher cannot count of them.  Therefore, one of the changes I will be making next year is to create more time for students to discuss each others' projects.  I will also be doing different forms of genius hour and look forward to sharing (more regularly!) how it goes.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Google is NOT an Answer Generating Machine!: Grit and Too Much Google


In Genius Hour, I hope that students learn about more than just their topics.  In an earlier post, I noted that students can learn more profound lessons from their projects.  I am also hoping that students learn more about the nature of research.

After students selected their topic, it was time to begin research (January 31 was the first day we conducted research).  Invariably the first place they went was Google.  Google searches are very useful, but there are three major problems with the way students search Google.

The first problem is that students often type full questions for their search query: "Who is X?" "Where is Y?" "What is Z?" "What is a 9/11 Genius Hour project?"   I knew this would be a problem so before unleashing them to conduct their research so we had a short lesson on the best search strategies.  Nevertheless, when students began researching, some students immediately reverted to asking full questions as if they would be able to find an entire Genius Hour project online that they could then use as their own.  As I circulated the room in first period, I calmly reminded the first two or three students what we had just talked about concerning search strategies. After spotting another student conducting a ridiculous search, I exclaimed "Google is NOT an answer generating machine!  You will not find YOUR project online."  I then proceeded to very adamantly explain in more depth how search engines work.  In subsequent class periods on that late January day, I used that line as part of the lesson on search strategies.  How have students done in subsequent research sessions?  We've had five Fridays of reseach since and I have noticed that students have done more refined searches.  Occasionally, I'll encounter a student with overly verbose search terms, but overall I'm pleased with how student have done searching.

The second major problem is when students perform a reasonable Google search and after looking at one website and doing one search, they claim they can't find anything.  If this happens, I ask students what their original search terms were.  Then we discuss the merits and problems of those terms and if there could be better search terms.  Then we work on looking at several webpages or modifying the search terms.  But most of all we work on grit.  Grit simply means perseverance, stick-to-it-iveness, determination, etc.  More formally, according to Angela Duckworth, who popularized the term in a Ted talk, grit is "passion and perseverance for very long-term goals."  Using that definition, the passion comes from the students as they were able to select their topic.  The next part of the definition is perseverance and for some students, it must be taught.  Genius Hour is the perfect opportunity for students to learn grit because they are learning about something they are interested in.  Therefore, when they get stuck, they're much more likely to keep searching when they hit a wall.  Some students may need some help pushing through the wall, but once they're pushed they've been getting through, around, and over (or pick your favorite preposition) the wall.

The third major problem of Google is Google.  For the first research session, the ONLY resources students consulted were those that they found through Google searches.  This wasn't a problem for one period of work because students were becoming more familiar with their topic and gathering basic information.  However, one of the important lessons students should learn is that there are resources besides those online.  One of the requirements of my students' Genius Hour projects is that they consult an actual person who is an expert on their chosen topic. Usually this is done through email and this is important because students have to compose well-written and polite letters in order to ask someone else to help them.  Students are reaching way outside their comfort zones when they do this.  Doing a Google search is easy.  Emailing someone who is an expert is not easy or comfortable.  One of the thrilling things is how much help some experts have provided.  And if experts haven't provided very much help, I encourage students to write a follow-up email or consult other experts. Another source I am requiring students to consult is an actual book.  In expanding the realm of possible resources, I have seen tremendous growth among students.  Moreover, from using multiple types of sources, students learn that creating a project must have a broad-based foundation of information.

In the past six weeks, I've seen notable improvements in how students use online sources to learn more about their topics.  I've seen students more determined in learning about their topic.  I've seen students consult a wider variety of sources.  I've seen budding geniuses.