Sunday, September 22, 2013

Initial Lessons Learned In Genius Hour/Time For Students

Entering my 20th year as an educator I knew it was time to get out of my comfort zone again and try something radical.  During my research late last spring I found not one but two paradigm shifting choices I wanted implement.  The first involved switching my 6th grade Ancient History classes over to paperless environment, more on that in another blog.  The second involved my long held belief in igniting student interest in something that interests them.  What I discovered in my research was the education version of Google's 20% Time, known as the Genius Hour.

The concept involves allowing students to use 20% of their classroom time per week to investigate any topic that they are curious about.  In virtually every documented usage the students are given one class period per week to delve themselves into their choice.  At the end of the year the students present what they have learned in a "TED Talk". No grade is given for the project.

Normally, I try to take a vacation from focused educational theory until August. Not this summer, I was obsessed with gathering all I could. I knew I had very bright, and active students coming into 6th grade and they would need multiple activities during the class period to keep them on track.  Thankfully, my principal loves to see her staff take on new, well thought out challenges. After ten minutes showing that the time sacrificed would not impact the topics covered in Ancient History I was green-lighted.

Week One
In order to make 20% Time work for my students I had to accept the fact that their is no one way to run the program.  While driving thru the wide-open spaces of I-80 in Wyoming the template formed for how this student-led learning was going to function

#1- Change the name
I saw that many teachers running the program also saw that the name "20% Time in Education" is a snooze-festival for students.  It needed to be short, catchy, and appealing.  I liked the title "Genius Hour", but didn't seem to fit (explained in #2). Just a few minutes later as I passed thru Green River, Wyoming I began repeating the title "Genius Time". It has the instant buy in feature as well a bit of braggadocio that would make the kids feel that what they are doing is important.

#2- Working Time
As mentioned above, the incoming 6th needs change during the hour they are in my room.  Therefore, the one hour during the week was an instant no hoper of a choice.  The students needed time each day. Realistically, 20 minutes each class seemed just right based upon years of how I ran Ancient History class. Granted, they wouldn't get into a roll, but that was ok because it then forced the students to do some of their Genius Time work at home.  I very much want the parents witnessing what their child is fascinated about as often as possible.

#3- Classroom Management
If there is one thing that two decades in the classroom has taught me is that no matter how fun/interesting the class activity is, there will always be a few middle schoolers who need some form of external inspiration to keep them on track.  Since the whole idea of the program is that the resulting learning isn't graded, some other time on task framework needs to be used.  It had to be fair, simple to implement, not heavy-handed, yet impactful enough to keep the focus.  I came up with the 2,1,0 point system. Two points for consistent focus, one point if the student bounced between focus and distraction, and zero if they were having one of those days where anything/everything was more important than Genius Time.

#4- Introducing Genius Time
In order to inspire Genius Time with the students, I knew that how I introduced it was critical.  Asking a sixth grader to do extra work without a proper sales presentation is asking for disaster.  With the help of an online MOOC run by AJ Juliani via Schoology in July, I created a Keynote presentation sprinkled with tidbits of humor for the first day of class.  Each day following I added in a few additional details.  By the end of the first week the students had all the basics.  Purposefully, I avoided telling the parents anything until the weekend when an email was sent home.  I wanted from the outset the kids to be in charge of communicating with their parents about Genius Time.

#5- The Contract
Having the students sign a contract is the most overtly fun destroying aspect of Genius Time.  However, I felt the contract was crucial to keeping the kids going for the entire year. After a couple of failed writing attempts I searched the web and found one developed by Principal Greg Miller. With slight modifications it worked perfectly for my vision. The key addition was having the students list their 3 favorite choices in order of preference as I expected some minds would change after one or two days.

Week Two

With a week of student preparation Genius Time was launched at forty minutes after the hour.  Quickly, a short line appeared at my desk evenly divided between family tree builders and app designers.  Mistake number one was mentioning just five sample ideas to students.  Next year I plan on showing a "wordle" of at least 25 choices.  The goal being to give students the impression of endless possibilities.

Some of the family tree students quickly became overwhelmed from visualizing the final project instead of the first few steps. A few went to their parents requested a membership to where they have found more chaos.  A second letter home helped to slow the march to signing up to paid websites. Others have shifted from the family tree to compiling family stories that get repeated during visits and reunions.

On day two the first two students to lose a point for being off task occurred, the other students saw/heard the judgement and since then only occasionally has a student crossed the line, the most flagrant was for sneaking a minute to play "Roads of Rome" on the iPad.  

Thursday could have been renamed second choice day, as approximately a dozen students came forward to inform me that they have moved on to their second choice.  A few came at the urging of their parents who could see an ensuing tsunami of frustration and tears.  The rest were the result of waning enthusiasm, as one student put it, It stopped being fun real quick.

With Friday's class I could finally start calling up students to check on progress, and act as a facilitator. At this point I realized that that there was no way that I could keep track of all 48 students.  The solution was to allow the students to blog within the enclosed digital walls.  The blogs can only be seen by fellow students and teachers. With that protection in place approval from my principal was immediate. Final step, an email home to parents updating how Genius Time has progressed and an explanation of the blogging activity.

Lessons Learned (so far)
First, communicate with the principal ahead of major decisions.  Just because the green light was given, don't assume the blank check exists.  Two meetings and approval of explanatory emails to parents has made my principal happy and in the loop.  

Second, keeping the parents informed via class-wide emails has kept my inbox clear and carline time free of questions, etc.. After all, informed parents are happy parents and positive supporters of the program.

Third, always refer to the process as small steps.  Keep the visualizing talk of the final result to a minimum with students.  For the musical students, tell them it's about practicing scales, athletes it's about drills, for the regimented it's all about organization.  

Finally, as the teacher, do your best to visit with every student weekly and be a chess master.  In other words, see the potential problems before they hit and have adjustments ready.