Friday, June 9, 2017

Genius Hour Reflections

Every year after final presentations, I have the kids write reflections about their learning and their projects. I think that reflection is a key part of learning and I want the kiddos to experience that learning as much as possible. Kids were to reflect on their project experience and also on themselves as learners. When I read the responses, I am always struck by how insightful and honest the kids are about their projects and themselves.

The one word that I read over and over in the reflections was "regret". Many of the kids regretted that they didn't put their best effort into their project experience. If they were to do it over again, they would do more, do better, do differently. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking, "Then why didn't you?" When I reflect on their words, I understand why. This Genius Hour experience is probably the first time in their lives that they participated in a project like this. Genius Hour projects are not teacher-directed projects with a list of "to-dos". In Genius Hour projects, kids have to do it all. They imagine the idea, do all of the preparations to complete the project, and then work on the project to completion. Kids have to do projects like this over and over to practice independent learning and decision-making. They will not be hugely successful the first time out of the box.

Nearly every student said that they wanted another shot at their Genius Hour project. They wanted to do better. They wanted to succeed. I explained to them the concept of "good failure" but so many kids at this age believe that any failure is bad failure. They have not made the paradigm shift yet. It will take constant practice in this type of learning environment in order for their learning to change. Evolving into problem-solving learners is what these kids need in order to thrive in high school, college, and the work force. It is also necessary in order to get the most out of their lives.

Many kids really did get it. They used the semester to discover their talents, how they learn best, and what their interests are. The kiddos got jazzed up about the possibilities of their project and their learning. It was awesome. Their reflections talked about being able to choose according to their interests and talents. They talked about their futures and what they may pursue or accomplish. They talked about next year and what they might do in their own time to further their project ideas. Some even talked about growing their project into a program here at school. These kids understood the idea of Genius Hour early and made the most of it. These kiddos can also serve as models for some of the others who struggled.

It is always a challenge to run a Genius Hour program in class. The struggle to get kids to unlearn and relearn is real. This type of learning is normally different from anything they have ever experienced before in school. We coach, we cheer, we encourage, and we help. We never direct. We never make the project ours by making decisions for the kids. They have to make the decisions; it is their project. We stick with the projects all semester and by the end, kids begin to understand the learning they are undertaking. They start to see that they can make their own decisions and design their own projects. They take command of their learning. That is our goal, and most of the time, whether the project itself succeeds or not, we reach that goal.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Project Showcase!

On Wednesday, kids had the opportunity to present their projects to teachers and students at East Naples Middle School. All of the work that they had done over the course of the semester was about to pay off for them. Most of the kids made presentation boards similar to what professionals use during poster presentations at conferences. Each of the kids had a station so that others could come to their station, see their project, and ask questions. Some kids' projects were interactive (the kids who created video games had a large group playing those games), some had the kiddo's invented device on hand for others to explore, while others were service projects that intended to sign up participants for the cause.

We had quite a few classes of students come through the showcase as well as teachers and administrators. It was a good day for the kids. They got to see that their work really does make a difference and that others are interested in what they are doing. So many of the kids discovered that they really do have a voice. When projects got positive reactions, I could see the sense of accomplishment and validation on the kids' faces. Before going down to the multipurpose room to present, nearly every child wanted to back out. They did not want the attention and did not think that their projects were worthwhile. They were afraid to be embarrassed because they (and their projects) were not good enough. All year I have been pushing, coaching, and trying to convince these kids that they have something valuable to offer to the school and the world. 

Once we set up our presentations and classes started coming by to see the projects, the kids were all smiles. The attendees moved excitedly from one project to another. Some kids were more interested in learning how to podcast so they spent their entire time at that project. Some kids wanted to make music right there with Macy; she had a large audience the entire time. Other kids wanted to play Alfonso's and Jon's video games and so these two boys had a line of kids waiting their turn. The reaction of the other classes to the kiddos' projects surprised them. They did not expect that their work would be appreciated as much as it was. Now, some kiddos did not produce anything to show. However, they still got to experience vicariously the triumph of the others. Even the kiddos who did not produce learned a valuable lesson, that maybe their ideas and voice would be appreciated too if they only took the chance. 

In past years, at my other school, we had a smaller group of kids with two teachers running Genius Hour. For our final event, we conducted student TED talks in the auditorium. At my current school, because of scheduling, facilities, and staffing, I have had to tweak the program to fit our school. Every teachers has to do the same in order to get the most out of the kids. The variables that we have are time, resources, and facilities. It is up to us to adapt our Genius Hour programs to get the most out of our kids within the limitations of those three things. Our Genius Hour program fits our school. It looks different from our program of the past, and that is okay. It is the Genius Hour experience that is most important. Allowing kids the freedom to study or create something that THEY want is the most important thing we can do for kids. Any good Genius Hour program will be built around that premise. Days like Wednesday are so validating because most kiddos take advantage of the opportunity and do more than they thought they could. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Checking In

There is a lot of time between the high-stakes Genius Hour days. In previous years, we had Pitch Day in December, Idea Showcase in February, and Student TED Talks in May. There is a lot of work time between those events. We had to have some way to closely monitor the kids' work. While we check in with them each week, we wanted some formal way to have the kids reflect and curate the work that they have done so far. This year, because my teaching position is a bit different than my previous one, we had Pitch Day in December and we will have Idea Showcase act as our final presentation in May. That's a lot of time between high-stakes days. This week, because I need to see where the kids are in the process and some of what they have already produced, kids will complete Checkpoint Activity 1.

This activity is part evidence and part reflection. I assigned it last week so that the kids have two weeks to really dig in and assemble their work so far. This document is in the folder of documents linked on the right hand side of the blog. Kids will create a document and describe some of the work that they have done. They will not talk about what they plan to do. They will show what they have done. Their summary will be augmented by pictures and video of their work, or links to their work online. I want to see what they have been doing. If they are making something, I want to see the progress. If they are designing, I want to see it. Kids must show four elements of the project and the blog they are keeping acts as one element.

After the kids curate their work, they will reflect on what they have done and what they still have to do before presentations in May. The timing here is perfect. Kids still have almost two months to finish their projects so they should be focusing in more and more each day. Many kids have said, "But I am not finished with my project yet" or "I haven't done anything in a month". This activity helps them get back on track. It is not a high-stakes event like Pitch Day or Idea Showcase, but it is important enough to help them focus.

As usual, some of the projects are going beautifully. Kids are designing video games, upcycling clothes, creating cookbooks, writing novels, creating and marketing products, and helping local organizations. Some projects, on the other hand, have stalled. This is normal. Not everyone will have an amazing product. After all, we don't assess on the product; we assess on the learning that occurred during the project time. Any grade that the kids receive will be a combination of the project learning and their reflection after final presentations. Only then will we really see what the kids have learned for themselves.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Game On!

When I introduced Genius Hour to the kids, several decided to do something with video games. They tossed ideas around including creating video games, blogging about video games, and reviewing video games. Jon decided that he wanted to create a video game. His work began by sifting through the numerous online video game makers until he found one that he liked. He explored several and decided that he would create his using one of his favorites. As he developed his game, and other students took a look at it, he became more encouraged to develop it. Now, whenever he has some spare time on a computer, he is working on his game.

Jon and Emmanuel troubleshoot an aspect of Jon's game

Other students offer advice and recommendations. Maybe a part of the game didn't provide enough challenge, or too much challenge. Maybe the order of progression should be tweaked. All of these are decisions that Jon must make in order to improve his game. The learning in Genius Hour is awesome because the burden of creating rests on the students. They are the ones making the decisions, testing those decisions, and further tweaking their product. Each student develops their own process for learning. This type of learning environment is completely individual.

Not only is Jon learning about video game making, he is also learning about marketing, troubleshooting, persistence, progression of thought, and grit. Jon is learning both content, process, and how to stand on his own two feet.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Cool Projects!

As kids get deeper into their Genius Hour project work, they keep discovering new problems and new solutions to those problems. The most pressing problems for kids so far is accumulating the materials to build their project ideas. Some thought initially that they would be able to get their hands on material and have since had to change their approach. These are problems that they will solve in time. Other kiddos are moving right ahead.

Gladys decided to do a project centered around her artistic ability. We have a couple of kids showcasing their art, photography or music talents during our Genius Hour project time. Gladys is creating art and other students at school are buying it. At this point, she may build an Etsy site or continue to create and display at school, allowing kids to see and purchase her creations. Gladys is also creating specific designs for kids who request them. Art commissions in their infancy at ENMS :)

Carina loves animals and wanted to center her project around helping animals. She has been working on a project to become more involved with a local animal shelter and organize events to get other students involved as well. Carina is publicizing her project in school and was creating a graphic design using She will produce these flyers to try to gin up interest at school. 

Rodolph is still working on the design of his mechanism that will guide a basketball player's wrist while shooting. Many beginning basketball players, he has noticed, do not have the proper form. His project, Flick That Wrist, will aid beginners in developing the proper form. Rodolph is ready to begin building the first iteration of his design. 

Things do not always go smoothly for the kids during Genius Hour work. They hit a lot of roadblocks. These roadblocks are learning opportunities. They find solutions to the problems that they encounter and become more confident in themselves as independent learners when they do. These kiddos are learning the benefits of persistence and grit. It will be one of the best things that they learn this year.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Project Profiles

The kids are working on some very cool projects and two of three of those projects stood out to me this week. Jack is writing a novel. He was interested in writing a book because sometimes he has trouble finding books he likes to read. He is writing the kind of book that he would like to read. Jack has a decent amount of the book written and he works on his novel a couple times per week. He is beginning to develop the good habits of a writer, primarily to write every day.

This week, Jack decided that he wanted to design his book cover. I suggested Canva for this task. Canva is an excellent graphic design site that is relatively easy to use, free (or cheap), and as simple or complex as the user wants it to be. Within twenty minutes, Jack had the first iteration of his design. It will probably change. After all, this was his first attempt and he is learning what the program can do. As he learns the capabilities of the program, he will tinker and reinvent his book cover. This is a great example of a student's interest driving his learning.

Jack designing his book cover.

Both Brian and Robert are working on animation. Both wanted to learn how to do animation and create a video or short movie for their projects. Even though their projects are different, they are working together. They talk, experiment, bounce ideas off of each other, show each other things that they have discovered, and explore the world of animation. Both Robert and Brian have been watching YouTube videos that teach kids how to do the type of animation they want to do. 

Robert decided that the kind of animation he wanted to do required an Adobe product. He went through the research about the program but we could not get it for him (cost was prohibitive). He snooped around the apps already loaded on the computer we have in class and discovered a different Adobe product that, after some experimentation, will allow him to do the animation he wants to do. It is not the exact program he was looking for but it has the same capabilities. Once he discovered this program, both he and Brian were off, learning and creating animation. 

Brian introducing sound to his animation project.

Robert writing directions for his animated character.

All of this learning is student-driven and intensely interesting to them. That is the genius of Genius Hour. All kids can find projects that are personally fulfilling to them and learn at their own pace in their own way. For these kids, it a departure from their traditional schooling and while it took some getting used to, they are embracing this type of learning in a big way.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Reflection: Our Genius Hour Blogs

Most teachers know that reflection is a key element of learning. We practice reflection in many ways. We blog, we engage on Twitter, we converse with other teachers, we read, we think and we wonder. We try to analyze what is going well and what needs adjustment. We try to figure out why something succeeded or failed and map out ways to do better next time. Reflection may very well be where most of the learning occurs. We teachers know that reflection is essential to developing a deep understanding of material and how we ourselves learn best.

Sometimes we overlook the reflection piece with our students. We are busy generating assignments so that they can perform and sometimes we don't allow enough time for kids to do their own analysis about their learning. Now, surely kiddos are not experts at reflection. They may not even know why reflection is important. "This is dumb. Can't we just do something else?" is a common refrain. Why would kids be so opposed to reflection? Well, for one thing, kids often don't know how to reflect. The way many schools work usually does not allow time for deep thinking about learning. We have material to cover. We cannot take time to think about what we are doing. Because of this rushed curriculum, kids are never given the opportunity to develop their reflective selves.

Kids have to learn to reflect on their learning just as we teachers did. We have to give them time and scaffold some activities for them so that they get the hang of it. With practice, they will develop the ability to analyze their work for the purpose of improving their learning. We have to give them time. One way we English teachers have been coaching reflection with kids is reader response. Kids spend time analyzing the books they are reading and also reflecting on their own reading skills and preferences. They take a long look at what they are doing for the purpose of improving their learning. That is the kind of reflection we want for our kids in all of their learning.

Our Genius Hour blogs are perfect for developing reflection skills in our students. They are in charge of their learning, making almost all of the decisions about their projects. Once a week, I ask them to write a blog post about their learning. What have they accomplished during the past week? What is the next step in their project? Is the project going the way they thought it would? Have they been surprised by the results of the decisions that they have made? Are they on track to complete their project? Given the work that they have done so far, what materials or resources do they need for the next step? All of these questions bounce around their brains. They have to take a long look at their learning. They have to reflect.

Our kids are making dozens of decisions about their projects each week. With each decision they make, a handful of new decisions appears on the horizon. They are figuring out that learning is a continuous process and that we are never really "finished" learning. One door leads to another and another. What we hope to accomplish with our blogs is to have kids take the first steps toward figuring out their talents and gifts and maybe take a look down the road to see how they can use these talents and gifts in their lives and in their work. We hope that they start planning some long-range goals. Some kids will discover new talents during our Genius Hour projects. That's what our projects are all about. We are learning a bit about a topic but we are learning a great deal about ourselves.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Blogging Our Reflections

One of the most important parts of the Genius Hour journey is the reflection piece. Kids need to take time to assess what they are doing, how they are doing it, and make adjustments along the way. It is how we all learn. If we never stop to figure out what went wrong and what went right, then we never really understand our learning. Blogging is a powerful tool that helps kids figure out where they are going with their Genius Hour projects.

Now that our Genius Hour program is well underway, it is time to introduce the blogging piece. This week, we will create blogs. Kids will begin their blogs with an entry entitled "The Origin of the Idea" where they discuss how they came up with their Genius Hour idea. It is important for us to understand the "why" behind the project because it is the "why" that keeps the program alive. If the project is really a personal passion, the project will succeed and the student will thrive. If the "why" is weak, then the project will likely run out of steam. During our idea-generation stage in the fall, we talked a lot about the "why" and many kiddos changed their project ideas because they had a weak reason for doing the project. Most have really dug down to find their passion and now are working on their projects. They may not know how to go about it but they are figuring it out.

Each week, the kiddos will post at least once to their blogs, updating us on their progress toward their goals. That post is a chance for kids to really take a look at what they are doing and formulate a plan to tackle "what's next?".  Most of our kiddos have never blogged before so I show them examples of blog posts from the kids who have gone before them. On the right hand side of this blog there is a list of "Must Read Student Blogs" that changes every year. We still have last year's blogs up because this year's kiddos have not started blogging yet. Those blogs will change soon. When we change out the blogs, we create a page to house all of the blogs from last year. We never want to lose any student's work. It is that important to us.

During class, I stress to the kids that they are capable, independent learners. None of these kiddos is used to this type of learning situation because it has so rarely happened to them before. They have to gain confidence in themselves and know that their ideas, skills and talents matter. They need to see in themselves what we see in them. They need to raise their expectations of themselves. Genius Hour gives them a great opportunity to do something amazing. These projects can change kids' self-perceptions. They can learn more about themselves and see themselves as "in charge" of their learning. They will also be more apt to take on independent projects in the future whether or not those projects occur at school. We are cultivating independent learners who seek to develop their passions. We are cultivating genius.