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.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Lego Movie and Genius Hour

#geniushour My twitter handle is @tklein11

I'm not the only teacher using Genius Hour.  Joy Kirr has compiled a very extensive Live Binder list of teachers using a version of Genius Hour their classrooms and resources for teachers and students.  There is clearly a movement going on.  What type of movement is it?  What are its origins?  Where else does the movement show up?  To find out, let's start in an unexpected place: The Lego Movie.

Over President's Day weekend, I saw The Lego Movie at the Mall of America. I loved it and disliked it simultaneously.  I loved it because I love Legos.  I also disliked it, however, because it vilified what I will call the "direction followers."  When I was young (and sometimes not-so-young) and built my Legos, I followed the directions.  I found it thrilling to create order out of the jumbled mess of pieces strewn across the floor.  I found it even more thrilling to complete Legos' original Pirate series, which was capped by the completion of El Dorado fortress during a very memorable Christmas.  (The previous sentence was exclusively for my mom and sister.)  In the Lego movie, however, it is those who do not follow the directions or care about completeness and order who are celebrated.  The heroes of the movie are those who follow their intuition, instincts, and passion to create whatever their heart can feel and their mind imagine.  Direction followers like myself are the bad guys because of our legalistic enthusiasm for the directions and our lack of creativity.   Thus, the The Lego Movie highlights a contrast between order and logic on one hand and imagination and passion on the other.  This juxtaposition is best illustrated in eighteenth and nineteenth century European intellectual culture.

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that flourished in eighteenth century Europe, especially among the bourgeoisie (roughly today's middle class) and aristocracy.  Enlightenment thinkers, or philosophes (a French term), believed that reason and rational thought were the keys to understanding and improving all aspects of humanity.  Philosophes believed it was possible to organize and categorize all the knowledge in the world.  They wanted to create order out of chaos and complexity and they produced many great advances such as the Encyclopedie, American Independence, the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill or Rights, modern republicanism, the street pattern of Washington, DC, the grid pattern of Iowa and the Midwest, and the French Revolution. I am a self-described "Man of the Enlightenment."  When I first learned about the Enlightenment in undergrad, I had an a-ha moment and realized, "this is me."  Just like the philosophes, I valued logic, reason, order, organization, completeness, symmetry, and so on.  Thus, my desire to impose order on my Lego sets and follow the directions is very much rooted in characteristics that the philosophes valued.  The Enlightenment was not, unfortunately, a panacea.

Around the turn of the nineteenth century, Romanticism (this is distinct from what I call romance-icism) emerged in response to the more negative aspects of the Enlightenment, especially the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution.  From September 1793-July 1794, supporters of the Revolution, many of whom were trained in Enlightenment thought, executed 50,000 or so of their political opponents, most famously via the guillotine.  Those who observed the Reign of Terror with horror noted the danger the cold rationality of Enlightenment thought could have.  Though they emerged from the same social and economic milieu as their Enlightenment predecessors, romanticists believed that humanity was about passion, imagination, and intuition--not a heartless adherence to a political philosophy.  They believed that the source of truth in the world was found within each individual, not in a political ideology.

The best example of Romanticist philosophy, ironically comes not from nineteenth century, but from 2014. Currently, Apple is airing this iPad Air commercial linked here and called "Your Verse." Watch it now!

Romanticists in the nineteenth century believed in the "powerful play," their preferred medium was poetry, and they believed that passion was at the heart (pun intended) of humanity. In modern popular culture, The Lego Movie urges its audience to use their imagination to create from within, rather than suffer the confinement of following directions from without.  In modern technology, the iPad, an instrument of science, is re-imagined into the tool of an artist.  The ideology of romanticism is powerful, eternal, and can show up in a variety times and places.

And finally, we get back to Genius Hour.  The iPad commercial concludes with: "The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.  What will your verse be?"  Genius Hour is about students following their passions and sharing their interests and causes with their peers and, hopefully, the world.  For four days a week they are following the "Lego directions," but on the fifth day they are creating whatever they can imagine.  My students who are diving deeper into the impact of the smallpox vaccine, the problems of poaching, cattle breeds from around the world, how to end bullying, and the significance of Youtube are certainly contributing their verse.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Genius Hour Topics: The Deeper Lessons Students Can Learn

Overall, my students are working on approximately one hundred Genius Hour projects.  I am blown away at their creativity and range of topics they selected.

My goal for Genius Hour was for students to explore their interests.  But I also want students to justify why their friends, colleagues, parents, and teacher should know more about this topic.  I want there to be a larger lesson for each of these projects.  In some cases, I've had to focus students on a narrower topic and help them identify a lesson.  In most cases, students did this on their own.  Here are some of the prominent thematic lessons students are learning:

1. Success
Two projects stand out to me because they can help their peers understand the paths to success. One student is doing her project on Tom and Terry Brands because she likes wrestling.  (In fact, she likes wrestling so much that she's doing a project on two Hawkeyes even though she's a Cyclone fan.)  The underlying theme of her project will be that if two kids from a northwest Iowa town (Sheldon) can achieve great success, so can she and so can her classmates.  A second project deals with the Fox Racing Company, which is the best known brand in action sports and racing clothing and accessories.  By tracing the popularity of Fox and the reasons it has grown, this student can provide another lesson on success to her classmates.

2. Recent History
Among Civics students, a very popular topic is 9/11, whether it be a victim, a fire-fighter, why and how the buildings collapsed, or the conspiracy theories.  The reason for the interest is that we had just studied 9/11 in the lesson before I introduced Genius Hour (recency bias at its finest).  Morever, it's an event that happened in their lifetime, but they don't remember because they are too young.  (I know that previous statement will make most readers feel old.)

3. Distant History
I tried to read The Art of War by Sun Tzu.  Twice, in fact.  It's one of those texts that every historian feels like he or she should read. I wish I had a more elegant reasoning for why I still haven't completed it, but the only thing I can say about The Art of War is that I found it boring.  I'm very excited, however, that a student chose to read it and share with his colleages how an ancient Chinese military text is still so important today.  I'm even more excited that I can learn more about it without reading it.  My reading list is already filled with books that I actually want to read.

4. Identity
One of the reasons history is taught is to develop a national identify among citizens.  One student is studying diesel engines and why they're more popular in Europe than in the United States.  Another student is studying the differences in hunting practices and laws in Europe and United States.  The historiography on whether the United States is an extension or rejection of European society, culture, and politics is extensive.  These two projects will contribute to that debate.  More importantly, it will help students understand what America is and is not and what an American is.

5. Helping soldiers and veterans
It is very heartening that two students focused on issues related to our military.  One wants to organize care packages for current soldiers.  Another student is researching the effect that deployment had on returning soldiers and veterans.  In both cases, these topics are very personal to students because it involves family members.  These students are truly making a difference and improving lives.

6. The importance of utilities

Two students who struggled to find a project took me up on my suggestion that someone should consider the importance of running water and sewage systems in developing counties.  The effect of water-borne diseases has a horribly negative impact on cultures, societies, families, and economies.  Donations of food and clothing are often seen as the best solution to helping people in poorer areas.  Empirical studies and anecdotal evidence, however, has shown that donations of food and clothing have a deleterious effect on the intended beneficiaries because these products of goodwill actually reduce their self-efficacy and motivation.  Instead, these students are finding that people in developing countries are helped more if charity is directed at municipal/village level infrastructure projects.  They have also found that they can take action to help.

7-98.  In the interest of time, I skipped a bunch of lessons.  But I saved the best, and most important, lesson for last...

99. Don't be a Minnesota Vikings Fan

The most brilliant idea of all the Genius Hour projects is entitled "Minnesota Vikings Fans' Heartbreaks Over the Years."  (I'm probably not supposed to pick a favorite and my favorite probably shouldn't be a topic so superficial, but as a Viking fan, the son of a Viking fan, and nephew of a HUGE Viking fan, I can't help it).  He is going to show brief clips and descriptions of some of the worst losses in Vikings history, of which there are a lot.  Four Super Bowl Losses, five NFC championship games the Drew Pearson push-off, the Herschel Walker trade, and so on...  He is very excited about the project.  So am I.  So is my uncle.  Nothing exemplifies the psyche of the Viking fan better more than discovering or enjoying the reminisces of old heartbreaks.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Ideological Origins of Genius Hour in Mr. Klein's Classroom

I recently surrendered eighteen of the ninety school days this semester for my students to work on Genius Hour.  As it was, ninety days in a semester was not enough to teach all the lessons I would like to teach.  SO WHAT IN THE WORLD AM I DOING?  Implementing Genius Hour is a big change--revolutionary, perhaps--and like all big changes (such as the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the French Revolution) there are many influences: Daniel Pink's Drive, a professional Development day with Angela Maiers, support from the administration, current trends in popular historiography, and most importantly, my instincts.

Genius Hour is, simply, the opportunity for students to spend twenty percent of their time on a topic that intersts, excites, and challenges them.  On Friday, January 24, 2014, I introduced Genius Hour to my Civics, Geography, and World History students.  Genius Hour in my classroom uses models other teacher have used, primarily Chris Kesler's "Genius Hour" website (   There are three requirements:  1.  The students must choose a topic they are passionate about or interested in. 2. They must do research.  3. The students must have a larger purpose in choosing their topic, such as "How can I make a difference?" or "What do I want others to know about my topic?"

Now for the ideological origins of Genius Hour in my classroom...

1. I am currently taking courses for a second master's degree, this one an MS in Education through Southwest Minnesota State University.  Each month, a course requirement is to read a work on an educational topic.  During the first week of January, I read Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink, an option for our January meeting on motivation.  Pink hypothesizes that most people in our contemporary economy are motivated by the desire for more autonomy, the opportunity to achieve mastery, and doing work that is purposeful.  He argues, therefore, that a system of rewards and punishments, which dominated the twentieth-century business and education systems, no longer works today and must be replaced.  Among the alterations he suggests is Genius Hour, which originated with Google.  Though intrigued by this idea, Pink's argument was not enough to sway me to give up twenty percent of class time to my students' interests.

2. On Wednesday, January 15, Estherville-Lincoln Central teachers had a professional development day in which Angela Maiers, a nationally known educational consultant from Des Moines, was the key-note speaker.  Among Maiers's major messages was that students need to be told that they matter, they are geniuses, they have the opportunity to follow their passions, and they can make a difference in their world.  What really resonated with me was when she off-handedly mentioned how her vision for schools were similar to Pink's vision for businesses.  In a moment of extreme clairvoyance, I instantaneously committed myself to implementing Genius Hour in my classroom.  Whatever concerns I had vanished and I became certain of the benefits of providing students the time and support to pursue their interests and passions.

3. Pay close attention to the previous sentence: the words "I ...committed" imply autonomy.  So I have the autonomy to give students autonomy!  (There's a great lesson in classical early modern European political philosophy here, but I'll avoid that.) I have this autonomy because the leadership at ELC is reading and thinking the same way I am.  Or vice versa.  Regardless, I decided on my own without asking because I knew that I would have the support, and encouragement, of Mrs. Paul, Mr. Christenson, Mrs. Jensen, and Mrs. Nitchals.  They cultivated an atmosphere in which my ideas could be implemented in my classroom, and more importantly, students' ideas could be pursued to further their own learning.

4. So what will students be working on? (This will be the subject of my next post)  Won't they be pursue topics that are not academic, like wake-surfing, the history of volleyball, or Dr. Who?  Yes, they will.  Other students, however, are working on profound historical topics or projects that can help others, such as the origins of chess, the Sun Tzu's Art of War, and the Battle of Mogadishu.  But even the seemingly academically questionable topics ARE WORTHY of study because framed the right way, topics such as wake-surfing, volleyball, and Dr. Who can highlight much larger principles or trends in history or the contemporary world.  Moreover, having my students turn the superficially trivial into the deeply profound is a model that can be seen in the popular historiography today, which uses everyday objects, places, and events to illuminate larger concepts or principles in history.  Throughout my course, I have students read excerpts from works such as Tom Standage's A History of the World in Six Glasses, An Edible History of Humanity,  Neil MacGregor's A History of the World in 100 Objects, and Niall Ferguson's Civilization: The West and the Rest.  Each of these titles tells a world history through a series of everyday objects or ideas.  The authors use coffee, pop, canned food, fertilizer, plates and dishes, coins, blue jeans, and myriad other items to highlight larger forces in world history.  Thus, students exploring their own interests, with my guidance, can do the same kind of thinking as these renowned scholars.

5. Let's revisit the second sentence of this piece: "As it was, ninety days in a semester was not enough to teach all the lessons I would like to teach."  Did you catch that?  "...the lessons I would like to teach."  That statement encapsulates a perspective that values the teacher's interests more than students' interests.  I teach history and social studies, in part, because I love history and social studies.  My pleasure reading is almost exclusively history and social studies.   But what about students who do not love history and social studies?  As long as I've taught, I've recognized that no matter how relevant I try to make history to students' lives, some do not see the value of the social studies.  In the past I have tried to find manageable ways to make the subject matter more individualized, and I had never found something what seemed to balance teaching skills and content with student interests.  The genius of Genius Hour is that it recognizes that teachers still have four days a week to teach the content, skills, and lesson that s/he thinks will help students learn.  Genius Hour recognizes that there is value to very well-established academic disciplines such as history, but on one day of the week  students who may not enjoy history or the social studies have the opportunity to pursue a topic that they want to learn about it.  I believe Genius Hour will be a very worthwhile pursuit in my classroom because it recognizes students desire for autonomy (the opportunity to select a topic and the time to work on it), mastery (sharing the topic with their peers or the public), and purpose (the opportunity to select a topic that will inform or help others).

6.  So what about those eighteen or so lessons that won't be taught?  No problem.  The students are generating replacement lessons to share their learning with their peers.  They have the opportunity to do what I do everyday--share my passion with others.