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.