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.

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