February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

It’s Genius Hour!

Students in Don Wettrick’s “Innovation” class at Noblesville (IN) High School brainstorm project ideas. Photo courtesy of Don Wettrick/Noblesville High School

Students in Don Wettrick’s “Innovation” class at Noblesville (IN) High School brainstorm project ideas.
Photo courtesy of Don Wettrick/Noblesville High School

It’s 7:30 am on the first day of my summer break, and I’m sitting in Don Wettrick’s classroom hoping my brain will wake up in time to absorb everything I don’t understand about genius hour. Wettrick wrote a book on the subject—Pure Genius (Dave Burgess Consulting, 2014)—and, as innovation coordinator for Noblesville (IN) High School, he has been sharing the most amazing stories about his students.

Those teens have been in the news lately for their work on local problems, such as addressing light pollution in town and helping SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients use their benefits at the local farmers’ market. Until recently, I taught in the same district, so I would occasionally meet his students around town. They could barely contain their enthusiasm and pride about the work they did in Wettrick’s “Innovation” class. I’ll never forget the day a high school student handed me his business card and encouraged me to attend a performance of the one-act plays his new company was producing.

This is the work that defines these students. That’s why I attended Wettrick’s two-day “Pure Genius” workshop—to learn how to recreate this phenomenon in my own school.

What’s genius about it?

Genius hour is different everywhere, but at its core, it is time set aside for students to work on and learn about what interests them most. Time in which their learning is self-driven, not guided by standards, rubrics, or exams. It’s a chance for students to explore what they love, in a space in which failure is welcome and support is everywhere.

Genius hour has its roots in Google’s 20 percent time policy. Early on, Google employees were encouraged to take one day—20 percent—of their work week to pursue company-related projects that interested them. The innovation resulting from this policy led to the development of some successful products, such as Google News and Gmail. It didn’t take long for educators to see the potential in this idea. Many, including Wettrick, credit the influence of best-selling author Daniel Pink and his 2009 TED Talk, “The Puzzle of Motivation,” in which he reveals the motivational power of autonomy. Today, librarians and teachers, including Wettrick, are adopting 20 percent time in their classrooms in the form of genius hour, although it may go by other names, too.

What’s important is what happens during genius time, not the amount of time itself. It can take place for 20–30 minutes on Fridays or during an after-school club. It might be one lesson in the library or a cluster of lessons; there’s no defined format.

School librarians are embracing it. The kind of out-of-the-box research and nimble thinking that teaching genius hour requires are well-suited to librarians, especially those whose schedules allow them to co-teach and plan with classroom teachers. Genius hour and the maker movement are cut from the same cloth. Genius hour projects frequently take place in the maker space—it’s where prototypes are built and inventions take form. Kristina Holzweiss, 2015 SLJ School Librarian of the Year, calls her maker space lessons “Genius Hour”; at her library at Bay Shore (NY) Middle School, they are one and the same. A maker space is an area for students to create, and genius hour is the time during which those students can brainstorm, plan, and design their creations.

“Genius Nuggets” and other approaches

Carving out the time for genius hour can be a big challenge in a world where educators are accountable for every minute of instructional time. But the gains to be made in student engagement and critical thinking are well worth it.

Asked how his genius hour has evolved, Wettrick explained that after several iterations of his innovations class, across two schools, he feels strongly that “Innovation” classes like his own should be formal elective courses at the high school level. “The push to foster creativity, [advance] toward innovation, and (maybe even) make the shift towards entrepreneurism needs significantly more time than 20 minutes a week,” he says.

Craig Dunlap, RTI math and blended learning teacher at Yealey Elementary in Florence, KY, was inspired after reading Wettrick’s book, and integrated genius hour into his classes at all levels. His blog chronicled the year, with all of its ups and downs. Dunlap’s elementary students participated in small-scale genius hour projects—which he called “Genius Nuggets”—and researched topics that interested them, whether it was mastering a bike trick or studying the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Students created presentations to share what they learned.

Sixth graders at the Bay Shore (NY) Middle School library  with a K’Nex creation made during genius hour. Photo courtesy of Kristina Holzweiss/Bay Shore Middle School

Sixth graders at the Bay Shore (NY) Middle School library
with a K’Nex creation made during genius hour.
Photo courtesy of Kristina Holzweiss/Bay Shore Middle School

Some school librarians and teachers, especially at the elementary level, choose a block of time on a specific day of the week. Sherry Gick, a former librarian for Rossville (IN) Schools, 2015 Library Journal Mover & Shaker, and currently associate director of innovative learning at Five-Star Technology Solutions, worked with a third grade teacher on a shared genius hour project in which they met one hour a week for 16 weeks. Gick’s students explored recycling at their school, while her collaborative partner, Matthew Winner, teacher librarian at Ducketts Lane Elementary School in Elkridge, MD, and a 2013 Mover & Shaker, worked with his own third graders to explore energy-saving strategies at their school. The classes communicated via Skype to share their progress. Gick’s eighth grade class met for one class period each week, with an additional half-period work time, for nine weeks. Students focused on school improvement topics, ranging from updating the dress code to growing food for school lunches, and concluded with a presentation to the administration.

Holzweiss works around varying time slots. Sometimes she has a whole week to lead her middle school students through a genius hour/maker space project; other times she has one day. In a few class periods, students created stop-motion videos, video games using websites, working Ferris wheels out of K’nex, and more.

Via Skype, third graders at Rossville (IN) Schools watch kids at Ducketts Lane Elementary School in Elkridge, MD, present a genius hour  project about saving energy. Photo courtesy of Sherry Gick

Via Skype, third graders at Rossville (IN)
Schools watch kids at Ducketts Lane Elementary School in Elkridge, MD, present a genius hour project about saving energy.
Photo courtesy of Sherry Gick

Are you ready?

It may seem impossible to prepare for genius hour, since students determine the content, materials, and even the driving questions. The teacher is charged with creating the environment and norms that will set up their students for success. Asked what can make or break a genius hour, Wettrick says, “The key to a successful genius hour is creating a culture of learning.” That also means teaching students to embrace failure. His students work from a design model that requires them to make a two-week action plan and assess their progress regularly. Finding the fun in failure is part of that. Some projects get abandoned after two weeks, while others grow and evolve throughout the year. One project, a podcast consisting mostly of political discussions described as “brutally honest” by the two students who produce it, continued into the new school year. In a recent Periscope video, those students discussed a rebranding effort to focus their message and how they communicate it.

To Dunlap, part of creating the learning-rich environment is making sure he has a way for students to report their activities and communicate with him. “Organization is the key to success,” he says. Dunlap uses the Office program OneNote Class Notebook, but any classroom management system that allows students to submit work and ask questions will enable the dialogue students need.

Holzweiss plans by considering how much time she will have with students, and the students themselves: What grade are they in? Are they mostly special education students or English language learners? Then, she selects resources for them based on their learning styles.

If this is beginning to sound costly, don’t fret. Joy Kirr, founder of a genius hour LiveBinder, a treasure trove of resources for teachers and librarians, says she doesn’t worry about funding student projects; she lets them worry about it. “If students want to do something strongly enough, they’ll find a way,” she says. Obtaining the money to fund a project is just one challenge the students need to work through. Kirr’s LiveBinder has articles, advice, and project examples from every grade level. Browsers can see what Julie Haden’s first graders at Palencia Elementary School in St. Augustine, FL, drew and wrote about their projects, or check out the Global Genius Hour Project’s wiki, featuring more ideas and examples. Providing tips on how to record students’ projects, Laura Rahn, a seventh grade teacher at Blue Ridge Middle School in Purcellville, VA, collected her students’ projects on a Padlet.

Advice from the trenches

Pink’s recipe for engaged, motivated workers (students) includes “Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.” Each librarian and teacher interviewed mentioned these characteristics as the ones that make or break genius hour.

Students should be working on a project of their own choosing, making strides toward mastering a skill or learning all they need to know. The best projects are rooted in real problems with real stakes.

“Have a plan. But be flexible,” Gick says. Holzweiss advises, “Try it once, try it twice. Then try it again!” Both Dunlap and Wettrick openly admit to getting it “wrong,” over and over. If the way you’ve got it organized isn’t working out, try something different. Don’t be afraid to switch things up midstream. You are learning right alongside your students, modeling trial and error in real time.

Genius hour doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Many students will need guidance and encouragement, simply because they haven’t ever been asked to learn this way before. Others, especially those who thrive in the lecture and test environment, may have a tough time adjusting to the “failure is fun” attitude.

Kirr advises teachers new to genius hour to “keep the reasons why in your heart.” Return to your purpose behind trying genius hour in the first place, and let the students guide you in your decision making. She also stresses that it’s important to make it work for you. There is no one genius hour “method”; no set curriculum to follow. Adapt it to your teaching style, so you feel comfortable and empowered to continue.

At the end of my two-day workshop in Wettrick’s bright, multicolored classroom, I get it. “Genius hour is the purpose of school,” he says. “It’s a space for learning. But the students get to choose what they learn, what they are curious about.”

When he launches a genius hour, Dunlap says,“I normally say something like this: ‘What would you want to learn about if no one told you what you had to learn about? Go do it!’ I see a blank look on kids’ faces…and [then], they light up.”

Matteson-Addie_Contrib_webAddie Matteson is a middle school librarian at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA.

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  1. Thank you for your comprehensive look into this movement. I am blown away by your insights and am honored that you would want to highlight my students and their work!

    • Thank YOU for participating! I was so impressed by your students, and the way you chronicled the experience and curated their work. I can’t wait to see what you do next!