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.


  1. Mr. Klein -

    Thank you for sharing your journey with us and the world. You are doing amazing things with your students and I am so excited to watch it unfold! Unleash the Genius!!

  2. BTW - I am a Viking fan (grew up Purple, bleed Purple, cry Purple), so I will be curious to see how the project unfolds and relive the heartbreaks.