When fourth-grade teacher Paul Solarz introduced the idea of Genius Hour to his class, most of his students were thrilled, but one of them broke down in tears. The idea of open-ended time to pursue personal passions was simply overwhelming to the boy, who has autism spectrum disorder and loves routine.
“He said, ‘I hate this! This is awful!’” Solarz recalls. “So I walked upstairs with him and asked his previous teacher what he might like to explore.” She told him that the boy loved creating avatars on the website Voki. When the student heard this, “he looked at me with the hugest smile,” Solarz says. “Within seconds, he went from tears to ‘I get to do this in school?’”
Genius Hour gives students the opportunity to explore their interests in a classroom setting. Its roots lie in what some call “20 percent time,” the practice of allowing employees to spend 20 percent of their work hours on projects arising from their imaginations and personal passions. At Google, 20 percent time led to the development of some of the company’s most innovative products, including Gmail and Google Maps.
Inspired by the success of 20 percent time in business, some teachers began adapting the practice for use in the classroom. “At first, there was just a handful of us,” says Gallit Zvi, a British Columbia–based elementary teacher who helped launch weekly #geniushour Twitter chats in 2012. “Now there are thousands.”
Teachers, and students, love Genius Hour because it “allows kids to dive deep into their passions, and traditional schooling doesn’t do that,” says A. J. Juliani, director of learning and innovation at Pennsylvania’s Centennial School District and author of The PBL Playbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Actually Doing Project-Based Learning. For Renee White, a first-grade teacher at Laurel Park Elementary in Apex, North Carolina, it “builds a lot of grit, resilience, and curiosity.”
Ready to give it a try? We asked Genius Hour veterans to share their top tips for success. Here’s what they told us.
Borrow an Hour
Setting aside an hour each week for student-led, inquiry-based learning can seem difficult, but teachers who have done it consider it a worthy investment of time. In fact, Genius Hour helps students develop self-sufficiency, which can save you time in the long run.
At the elementary level, many teachers borrow an hour from their allotted reading/language arts time. “During Genius Hour, you’re doing a lot of nonfiction reading and research. You’re hitting on all those reading, writing, speaking, and listening standards, and all of the creating, evaluating, and synthesizing standards,” Juliani says.
Other teachers use scheduled library time for Genius Hour, working collaboratively with school librarians to support student exploration. Jessica Morelli, a fifth-grade teacher at East Side Elementary in Marietta, Georgia, holds Genius Hour when the gifted learners in her class attend a pullout program. Dawn Alexander, a media specialist who works with Morelli to facilitate Genius Hour, says, “It’s a form of enrichment that we offer to the student population not already receiving enrichment through our Target program. Students are able to discover what they like to do and excel in ways that don’t often materialize in regular classroom activities.”
Get Into It Gradually
Rule #1: Let your students experience some success before going all in. Social media maven and Michigan elementary teacher Erin Klein started with what she called Class Con (a play on the hugely popular Comic Con), a classroom conference that highlighted her students’ areas of expertise. “It was show-and-tell on steroids,” Klein says. Students brought in something they loved—a tennis racquet, their dinosaur collection, home-cooked food—and shared it with their classmates during simultaneous 15-minute sessions. “We had three different areas set up, and students who weren’t presenting during a particular session could go around and visit the other sessions. It was very informal and relaxed, and helped break down barriers and build confidence,” Klein says. After Class Con, her students were clamoring for more time to spend on their interests, so she introduced Genius Hour.
Troy Cockrum, instructional technology director at Louisiana’s Oldenburg Academy and author of Firefly Classrooms: The 10 Elements of Authentic Tasks That Make Learning Visible and Social, recommends a “limited time frame” for initial Genius Hour projects. Instead of having students work on the same topic or project throughout the quarter or semester, make the initial project session last three weeks or a month. During the first week, students brainstorm topics and creations. For week two, they conduct research: reading, watching videos, interviewing experts. Then, during the third, and possibly fourth, week, they create something—a video, a model or invention—and share what they’ve learned.
Add Structure for Focus
“When I first did Genius Hour, I told the kids, ‘Hey, I’m going to give you an hour each week to do whatever you want. Go!’” Zvi says. “Now we work through a series of introductory lessons, brainstorm ideas with sticky notes, and fill out forms to request approval of topics.”
Adding structure to Genius Hour helps students stay on track. “The quality of our first projects was awful because students were playing and getting bored,” says Morelli, the fifth-grade teacher from Georgia. Establishing a basic timeline and expectations—topics need to be chosen by a certain day, you have class periods X and Y to research and build, presentations begin on date Z—teaches kids that there is a process and allows you to see when extra support might be necessary.
Also, consider how you’ll track progress. Most teachers don’t grade these projects, but they do insist on accountability. “The expectation is that, at the end of every Genius Hour, students post a video to our class Seesaw account and share something they learned or worked on,” Morelli says. Zvi has her students write blog posts; other teachers use reflection journals.
Relax Into the Joyful Mayhem
“Genius Hour is always crazy and wild and looks like chaos. In the beginning, that was a terror moment for me,” says White, the teacher from North Carolina. “I’ve come to understand that learning looks different at this time, and it’s okay.”
Take some deep breaths and hesitate before you intervene, even if you see a student struggling. Cockrum had one student who took weeks to pick a project. “I let him flounder but kept regularly checking in on him,” he says. A few weeks in, the student proposed a PowerPoint presentation on baseball. Cockrum encouraged him to think more expansively—and he eventually invented a new game. “He designed his own sport: the field dimensions, the type of ball, the equipment you use, rule book, everything,” he says.
Finally, don’t expect fantastic projects on your first go-round. “Some teachers want to give up on Genius Hour before they’ve allowed enough time,” Cockrum notes. “But as it goes on, you get more and more students doing great things.”
Photo: Jan von Holleben