If you could change one thing about your school, what would it be, and how would you do it? Teacher librarians Sherry Gick and Library Journal Mover & Shaker Matthew Winner are asking their students this very question with a student-driven project they’re calling GeniusCon.
The virtual event, described on both Winner’s blog, “The Busy Librarian,” and Gick’s, “The Library Fanatic,” asks students to research and report on solutions to problems that they see around them. Any schools and students may participate. As the organizers describe in joint posts on their respective blogs, they hope GeniusCon will foster “a learning environment where students feel empowered and learning feels authentic.”
Gick, a school librarian at Rossville (Indiana) Consolidated Schools, and Winner, a library media specialist at the Ducketts Lane Elementary School in Elkridge, Maryland, have a previous model for the project. GeniusCon is structured similarly to an earlier collaboration called Earth Pals, in which Gick and Winner’s third-grade classrooms brainstormed solutions to environmental issues, communicated via Skype, and shared data-filled presentations with each other online.
GeniusCon takes a broader problem-solving scope and is open to any interested schools. In February, Gick and Winner discussed GeniusCon at a Blackboard Collaborate moderated by North Carolina-based teacher librarian Jennifer Lagarde.The chat is archived on TL Virtual Café website.
Some of the issues that Gick’s eighth graders are looking to improve include lack of recess; school lunch choices; use of bathroom passes; and extended periods for study halls. Winner’s first graders are looking into ways to approach and address bullying.
GeniusCon will culminate in a Google Hangouts-hosted virtual conference in May in which attendees from elementary, middle, high school, and college will share their experiences. Gearing up for that event, interested teachers can take Winner and Gick’s GeniusCon Pledge, reading, “I, *state your name*, acknowledge that I have a class filled with geniuses who are capable of great things. I pledge to support them in any way I can in order to see their amazing ideas come to fruition.”
Gick and Winner met two years ago through the online gaming book group Level Up Book Club and subsequently began connecting their schools online for projects such as World Read Aloud Day. They landed on the GeniusCon idea during the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) conference this past November, where they were giving a presentation on Earth Pals.
For that initiative, students in Gick’s and Rossville teacher Gretchen Welk’s class were interested in researching recycled paper use in the classroom. They determined the most effective way to measure the amount of paper collected and then calculated how much paper could be recycled over time and how to share that information.
Over the eight-week project, the students collected 42 pounds of paper and estimated that in nine months, the elementary school could recycle close to 4,000 pounds of paper. “We taught kids how to create maps and charts in the computer lab, and Skyped and connected with kids in Matthew’s classes,” Gick says.
Winner, then at the Howard County Public School System in Ellicott City, Maryland, worked with teacher Albert Yoo’s class at Longfellow Elementary School in Baltimore. The Longfellow students researched energy conservation, using a voltmeter to measure energy usage in the school and creating infographics showing how much energy could be saved simply by shutting off devices and unplugging equipment when not in use. “The kids calculated that the school could save $3,000 a year—and buy nine iPads, or 23 Wii consoles with the money,” Winner says.
Each class then shared their work with each other via Skype, projecting presentations they created with and using Today’s Meet as a backchannel for discussions. Winner and Gick’s own presentation on the experiment, “Earth Pals: A TEDxElementary Project,” won the International Society for Technology in Education’s (ISTE) 2013 SIGLIB (Special Interest Group for Librarians) (SIGMS [Special Interest Group for Media Specialists]) Technology Innovation award for primary schools.
As Winner’s first grade GeniusCon participants find ways to tackle bullying in schools, “the solutions they come up with might be a play or songs or signs or behavior incentives,” he says. “This project is all about letting the children tell us what’s important.”