Friday, June 3, 2016

Tweaking Genius Hour: Twice the Genius

I haven't published an article this blog for almost a year. This is what happens when there aren't due dates....  The main reason I haven't written in so long is that I wasn't satisfied with how Genius Hour went first semester (Fall 2015) so I didn't write about it. If you examine my previous posts, you'll notice that I'm constantly tweaking it.  This time, however, I was so disappointed with it that I had to make more substantive tweaks. So I made some changes to Genius Hour second semester and I needed to see how it went before I wrote about it. 


Over the last few years, I've noticed that there has been a growing increase in the advocacy of the benefits of failure, being wrong, facing adversity, etc.  In 2008, JK Rowling (author of the Harry Potter series) gave a commencement address at Harvard she called "The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination."  The obvious implication in this speech was that she had once been a failure and was now wildly successful.  Self proclaimed "wrongologist" Kathryn Schulz, in Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, argues that embracing being wrong is a good thing and can change ones understanding of the world, relationships, and self. She widely explores different realms of the social sciences to demonstrate how the rigidity of being right and stuck in one's way is detrimental to individuals and society.

This is not really a new idea. Michael Jordan, the patron saint of overcoming failure, has this well known quotation:

Image result for failure

But the idea is even older than the 1980s and 1990s.  After all, Socrates, the famous philosopher, in the late 400s BC, believed that:

Philosophers seem like people who would know everything, but Socrates's believed he was smart because he knew what he knew, but more importantly, he knew what he didn't know.

So the greatest basketball player and philosopher agree: they were successful because understood and overcame their failures.


So back to Genius Hour... I wouldn't call Genius Hour first semester a failure, but it had certainly grown stale.  This, of course, defeated the whole purpose of Genius Hour so I needed to make a few changes.  After first semester, I did some reflecting and decided to make four major changes to Genius Hour second semester.

1. Twice a Semester: Instead of Genius Hour once a semester, I implemented it at the end of third quarter AND at the end of fourth quarter.  The reason for doing this was to provide students the opportunity to learn from the failures of their third quarter project in order to avoid them on the fourth quarter Genius Hour project.  Moreover, doing it twice would make students more familiar and comfortable with the process.  When there was only one Genius Hour project in a semester, if students made mistakes there was no opportunity to apply skills they had learned during the project on a subsequent one.  Plus there was little motivation to reflect upon their work since it was a one and done project.  This semester, I noticed a dramatic improvement in the fourth quarter projects since students could learn from their mistakes and were more familiar with the process which allowed them to focus on the content of their topic.

2. Fewer Work Days When I implemented Genius Hour in the spring of 2015 and the first semester of 2015, students had about eleven work days and four days for presentations.  The first time I gave students such a long, uninterrupted stretch of time to work and research in the spring of 2015, it went so well that it was the topic of my last Genius Hour post. For the first semester this year, it didn't go as swimmingly because students wasted a lot of time.  Also, because there were going to be two Genius Hours a semester, it made sense to cut back the number of days.  Each of those work days had a short and specific task that helped students move in the right direction (If there's crappy weather this summer, I might right a post about it.  Otherwise, you might have to wait until the fall to hear about these tasks).  I settled on seven work days and one day for a gallery walk.  It turned out to be the absolutely perfect amount of time.

3. Gallery Walks: The capstone to previous Genius Hours was a presentation to the class about their topic.  Though students had a wide variety of presentation tools, most chose to stand in front of the class and read a power point.  Students hated standing up there (I'm still not sure why so many chose to do something they could have avoided) because most people do not like public speaking, I was bored out of my mind listening four days of students monotonally reading presentations, and students were bored out of their minds (though to their credit, they were very respectfully and politely bored).  That I was struggling to help students break out of this rut was one of my biggest single frustrations.  And since I'd done Genius Hour for a couple years, many students who I had had in previous classes had come to associate Genius Hour with the presentations instead of an opportunity to share what they had learned or discovered. (I think I just set a record for the most uses of "had" in a sentence.) Thus, there wasn't as much passion for Genius Hour as there should be.

This semester, instead of presentations, students designed posters of their topic.  Most used Smore though a few students used other poster programs.  Students then hung their posters in the hallway so that other students could read and examine their project in a gallery walk.  If I had been on top of my game, I would have taken pictures or video recorded a portion of the gallery walk (so you're stuck with a random video in the previous link).  I didn't take any pictures because I'm not good at taking pictures.  When I say I'm not good at taking pictures, I don't mean that I don't take quality pictures. When I say I'm not good at taking pictures, I mean that I don't remember to actually take pictures.  I'm sure some students took some snaps of the process but those are long gone by now. (Before I started my travel blog, I rarely took pictures on vacation.  In fact, the main reason I take pictures on vacation now is for my travel blog.  I'll definitely be taking some pictures in August when I go to Chile again and the Summer Olympics in Rio.)

The gallery walk was a hit.  I did a poll after the third quarter Genius Hour and it was nearly unanimous that students preferred the gallery walk to presentations.  It wasn't a public speech, it was interactive, and it was interesting for students to see their peers' work.
4. Competition

The final major change I made to Genius Hour second semester was that students competed for prizes in four categories:

Most Interesting Topic
Most Informative Poster
Most Visually Appealing Poster
Best Hashtags (It's a Twitter-type thing.)

During the gallery walk, each student had a ballot and they voted for which poster they thought was the best. The competition gave students a little extra motivation, but the major reason I did it was to provide a purpose to the gallery walk.  If I had just had students look at each others' work, the gallery walk would have lasted about thirty seconds.  As it was the gallery walk still didn't last as long as it should have, but students did inspect each others' more closely fourth quarter.


Genius Hour in my classroom has constantly evolved and it looks almost nothing like it did when I first had students do it.  Now there are gallery walks, two Genius Hour projects a semester, and competition.  The focus of Genius Hour is supposed to be students' interests and passion.  So if the teacher does not provide the proper structures, the purpose of Genius Hour can get lost in the process.  To state it less elegantly, if the process sucks, then the students will not enjoy Genius Hour.  I am happy that I have established a framework and set of procedures that provides students the opportunity to explore in more depth a topic that excites them.  I expect that I will continue to adapt this framework and set of procedures because what is effective now, will not always be effective.