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.