Must the Students?

From original definition in Online Etymology Dictionary

I had a ton of fun helping out with genius hour. The students seemed to be enthusiastic as well, which is crucial for making genius hour effective. One thing I was wondering was whether or not the students had specific learning goals for their projects because I think that is important. The students must be able to explain why their project is worth learning.

~First time Genius Hour observing teacher

I am a firm believer in starting with the why. However, I’m not sure I agree with the above sentiment, and I would like your opinion.

Yes, indeed. They can make a fine tractor out of balsa wood.

Before genius hour, I ask my students to ask an essential question, but I don’t judge its worthiness, whether it’s essential enough. For instance, “Can I build a tractor out of balsa wood?”

In their presentations, I don’t ask them to explain why their project is worth learning.

However, I do ask students to reflect on their learning after genius hour in blog posts. (Some students are still working on theirs.)

In my own learning, I’m not sure I can always articulate my purpose (or the worthiness of my projects) when I learn to use Google Mapmaker, Garage Band and Voicethread.

I just learn because I want to. And now I sincerely want to learn from you.

Maybe asking more of my students in setting their goals would help them be more creative and productive during genius hour. Or will I stifle their self-direction? What do you think?

Do students need specific learning goals in genius hour?

Must students be able to explain why their project is worth learning?

Connected Learning, Thanks to My Neighbors

We were challenged to answer a few questions this week during the Connected Learning module in #ETMOOC.

One question is “What does my PLE/PLN look like? How can I share it?”

First of all, I had to look up PLE  because I had forgotten what it meant. (It’s personal learning environment). I knew PLN — personal or professional learning network. I guess I use these terms interchangeably. My connected learning is professional (it’s all about education) and personal (I choose who and the trails to follow in my learning journey).

This week, though, Ben Wilkoff offered another name for PLN — a personal or professional learning neighborhood. That makes complete sense to me now. After building my PLN for a couple years, I find my most meaningful connections are going deeper.

I have a small eclectic neighborhood that started with the Kick Start Your Blogging Teacher Challenge two years ago. The friends I made through #ksyb were my first tentative connections, and many of them continue today:  Nancy Carroll, Theresa Allen, Tracy Watanabe, Malyn Mawby, Karla O, Tracey Smith, Kathryn Trask and Sheri Edwards.

Now I also have a genius hour neighborhood. Gallit Zvi, Joy Kirr, Hugh McDonald, Robyn Thiessen, Sheri Edwards, Beverley Bunker, Jodi Pulvers, Karen Lirenman, Valerie Lees, A.J. Juliani, Julie Jee, and it continues to grow. Here are more genius hour teachers on my Genius Hour Twitter List.

I have a middle school educator neighborhood, including Laura Coughlin, Joy Kirr, Krissy Venosdale, Scott Boylen, Michelle T.G., Kay McGriff, JoAnn Jacobs. And Sheri Edwards. Again. Thanks to her and #etmooc, this neighborhood is growing, more intentionally growing. I’ve met Lorraine Boulos, Scott Hazeu, and Allison Petersen as a result. This middle school neighborhood has a wiki called Connect in the Middle and a Diigo group. It’s a collaboration place for middle school educators. And you are welcome to join too.

Some questions I am just attempting to answer during #etmooc…

  • How important is connected learning? Why?

Off the top of my head, last night I said connected learning is great for modeling lifelong learning and expanding our world view. It’s so true. I can’t explain it, but it is doing both those things for me. It is a way to make my learning visible.

In the #etmooc session on leadership (scroll down to T1S6), participants gave more reasons for being connected:

Screenshot by Donna Fry

One of my favorite reasons was articulated well by Bernard (that’s all I know of who he is).  “We network by passion rather than proximity.” I love that I have a professional learning environment that includes teachers down the hall like Brenda Ortmann and Kristine Full, but also in Missouri, Illinois, Washington, British Columbia, New Zealand, and more. I learn from many people who push me to greater accomplishments and who share my passions. I don’t have to rely only on those who share my proximity.

  • Is it possible for our classrooms to support connected learning? If so, how?

I am lucky to have access to MacBook Pros in my classroom, so my students are able to be connected with their own Google Apps and Edublogs accounts. These and programs such as Skype and Twitter have been invaluable in our quest for connected learning. However, many teachers and students are connected without a lot of technological support. Sheri wrote a recent blog post about how to connect with limited technology.

  • What skills and literacies are necessary for connected learning? How do we develop these?
    • Of course, basic literacy skills are more important than ever. Critical thinking and reading are imperative to navigate through the sea of information. Good communication with others we are connecting with requires listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
    • Digital literacy – The basics of digital learning, being comfortable navigating around device(s). We develop digital literacy by the messiness of doing, patiently troubleshooting and working in our digital spaces. Here is where students and teachers learn together. I don’t think it is really about digital natives and digital immigrants; it’s about daring to click, grabbing hold of the device and figuring it out. Young and old must learn to do this.
    • Digital fluency – Recently I’ve heard Mitch Resnick and Alec Couros talk about digital fluency. I see fluency as going beyond the basics of digital literacy to become well-versed, able to learn on your own, to tackle new problems and not give up. Fluency is the ability to create content and navigate effectively in the online world.
    • Heutagogy, or self-determined learning. Perhaps this is also known as rhizomatic learning. Or are they different? (I don’t know yet.) More and more, learning is and will be self-determined.

I made a Voicethread trying to share a little of my journey from just using technology to becoming a connected educator.

Mitch Resnick: Let’s Teach Kids to Code

Mitch Resnick, of MIT Media Lab and Lifelong Kindergarten, has a new TED Talk out, here and embedded below. Take 17 minutes to watch it today. You will not be disappointed — learners of all ages, elementary through adults.

As a result of this talk, more and more people will be inventing, designing, creating, building, sharing. Scratch is free to download from MIT. Get started today!

(If you already have an account, you can work on the beta version of Scratch 2.0.)

In addition, MIT Media Lab and P2PU are sponsoring a free class “Learning Creative Learning,” which will use Scratch. When you register, add the code #geniushour if you want to work with a group of genius hour teachers.

Now watch the video:

The graphic above was inspired by Mitch Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten video. You can watch it here:

A Year of Genius Hour – What Have I Learned?

The learners in my class of 2017 are geniuses. For over a year now, these students have had a chance to shape the agenda of their learning, at least part of the time. Because of genius hour, my students are learning to care again about learning. They choose what they will learn based on what they wonder about, what they are good at, and what they are passionate about.

It was a little over a year ago when I read a tweet by Angela Maiers about Daniel Pink‘s keynote address about motivation. I had seen the video “The Puzzle of Motivation“, and I had read his books A Whole New Mind and Drive. I had yet to fully translate the work to my students.

I had an epiphany after I read Angela’s tweet and later this blog post by Daniel Pink, “Genius Hour: How 60 minutes a week can electrify your job.” I knew that according to Pink, we are motivated with autonomy, purpose, and mastery. If we want motivated students, why not let students become motivated by giving them autonomy to master what they wish for their purpose? It makes sense! Why NOT, indeed?

So, our first genius “hour” was a three-hour block of time on the Wednesday morning before (American) Thanksgiving in 2011. It was such a thrill to watch the students fully engaged in purposeful learning, creating, producing, and mastering. They chose what they wanted to work on.

We  have continued to find our way through genius hour learning over the past 15 months. People often ask me if the students have trouble staying on task. To those people I say a resounding, “No, they do not have trouble staying on task.” (However, as most teachers can attest, they sometimes do when we aren’t in genius hour, when I am dictating the agenda.)

Skeptics and future genius hour teachers alike also ask, “Do students take advantage of the freedom?” “Yes, fully!” I say with enthusiasm. They love the learning environment during genius hour. They use every moment wisely. In fact, one of my favorite things during our first genius hour morning was when the bell rang after the first period. (The bells continued to ring because our high school students were in regular classes that morning.) Initially when we heard the bell, I saw the look of disappointment on their faces. Then a look of sunshine and delighted cries of “Ooh, we don’t have to leave!” (Chances are good that most of us don’t normally hear that kind of reaction at the end of a first period class.) All morning students continued to learn, ignoring bells, only taking an occasional bathroom break.

Now, to be sure, I know what people REALLY mean when they ask, “Do they take ‘advantage’ of the freedom?” They mean, “Do students screw around, instead of learning on their own?” To that I answer absolutely NOT. They have purpose. They have chosen what they want to learn; no one dictated it. They are given freedom to take as long as is needed to be satisfied with their learning.

Now that we have genius hour each week for two periods (20% of our time together), I have students for whom that is not enough. They work on their genius hour projects during study halls, before school, at home, and during recesses. They are passionate because they have chosen purposeful learning.

However, there is one negative that has cropped up over this past year, which I am just starting to figure out. In about 10-20% of students, their actions seem to say, “Too much freedom; just tell me what to do.” They don’t screw around really, but they don’t seem able to take hold of the learning for themselves. Typically I see these few trying to partner up with other students who have an idea. Then the more reluctant one acts as a helper of sorts for the other student’s learning. They sometimes want to switch alliances as they lose interest in their first partner or group. They are not fully engaged. (As opposed to what also happens — two or three students with the same passion join forces for a group project.)

In an attempt to alleviate the problem of the 2 or 3 students in a class who struggle finding their genius, I’ve been asking them to reflect upon these three prompts.

I keep working with them until they are willing and able to list their 30 “genius” ideas. (It is especially hard for some of them to admit to ten things they are good at). The lists become great conversation starters about what a learner might do for genius hour.

Sir Ken Robinson explains in The Element that when someone doesn’t know how to read and write, we don’t assume they are incapable of literacy. Instead we know that they haven’t yet learned how to read and write. In a similar manner, he explains, when someone isn’t creative, we should not assume that they are incapable of creativity. We should assume they just need to be taught.

I am trying to teach my students how to be creative.

The next graphic shows the Universal Constructs from the Iowa Core. These building blocks for success in the 21st century align perfectly with genius hour learning. I have had one-on-one conferences with my less creative students, showing them these “building blocks for success” and holding them accountable for the work they do during genius hour. Sometimes it means having a learner write an analysis of why he chose to abandon an idea. Or helping another learner find a way to be flexible and adapt instead of abandoning her idea.  I have listened to struggling small groups (limited to 2-3 people per group) as they figure out how to collaborate more effectively.

Next up in my what-I-learned series is to make a video to show genius hour from my students’ perspective. For now, though, I will share a video created by Gallit Zvi, another genius hour leader. It shows great work by her geniuses. I used it to introduce genius hour to my new class this year.

More Resources:

  1. Genius Hour wiki
  2. Genius Hour Blog Post Index – A list of posts from my genius hour beginnings and links to other teachers’ work.
  3. Center for Digital Education’s “Google’s 80/20 Principle Applies to Students
  4. Education is My Life – “Designing 20% Time in Education
  5. 2/15/13 – I did finish my latest “What is Genius Hour?” video.
  6. #geniushour Twitter Chat on the first Thursday of the month at 9:00 p.m. EST
  7. 3/18/13 – A comprehensive Genius Hour Livebinder by Joy Kirr.

All images are shared with a CC Attribution license. You are free to use them, just click on image for more info.