Finding My Way in Kindergarten Genius Hour

After teaching grades 7 and 8 for seven years, it was a challenge for me to go down to Kindergarten. The first few months, the way was treacherous. Now looking back, after eight months or so, I can say overall it has been a delight, and I know it was a gift I didn’t even know I needed.

I find I can practice what I learned in my Master’s program; that is, teaching young children literacy. Most importantly, though, the children are “wonderful, marvelous, beautiful, magical, filled with curiosity and dreams.” (Lyrics by Debbie Clement) They are loving and open. They are learning sponges with big, growing brains.

But how can I do genius hour with them? I wondered. I loved the engaged ownership in junior highers when they were given a chance to learn what they wanted in what we call genius hour.

As Faige Meller has suggested, genius hour in kindergarten may look like a maker space. In this tweet, she says making is what kindergarteners do and, in fact, makers are who they are. (Be sure to read Krissy’s original post too.)

I believed in making, but I didn’t know much about Kindergarten. I had learned to trust Faige, though, so when I saw her tweet last March, I began to run with her ideas in Kindergarten. I began collecting supplies and asking families to do so, as well. We have quite a collection, and we go through a lot of materials.

A genius hour sculpture

When I learn something new about brain research, I share it with my Kindergarteners too. They are not too young, and even though I’m speaking a foreign language to them (they are native Arabic speakers), they understand enough. They know they are capable and creative, and as they create, they get smarter. And they know that as they learn two languages, they get bigger brains too!

A matchbox car garage

So, we are definitely still making our way (pun intended), but we’ve had some huge successes. After we made a small couch for our reading center as a group project, one boy took on the task of making a very small chair with the ten juice bottles we had recently accumulated. He needed lots of help, but that’s where I came in handy, helping to wrestle the juice bottles and operate the hot glue gun and packaging tape. He was the maker. I was the sous maker taking my orders from him.

The little chair finished and ready for a cover.

Genius hour in Kindergarten. It’s happening. We are calling it that, we are making and learning, but I am always open to suggestions you might have for helping us do it better!

Please leave a link in the comments to your primary genius hour projects and process. Or share on Twitter with the hashtag #PrimaryGH.

Our growing collection of maker furniture

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.

I’m Getting It!

I’m starting to get what Sir Ken Robinson in The Element is talking about regarding intelligence and creativity. But it’s not easy!

People are intelligent in many different ways — not just verbal and mathematical reasoning, which are the prime targets in “intelligence” measurements (and peoples’ opinions about what constitutes intelligence).

I liked Robinson’s explanation of the three features of human intelligence on pages 46-51 and then again when describing creative teams on pages 125-126.

Diverse – Sir Ken Robinson points out that there is extraordinary diversity in the kinds of intelligence that people have, besides words and numbers, intelligence can be musical, kinesthetic, rhythmic, visual, interpersonal, mechanical, etc., etc.

Dynamic – Intelligence is also dynamic. We are not only good at one thing, but our dynamic brain is always interacting and forming connections and analogies. For instance, Albert Einstein often sat up late playing his violin while he thought deeply, the music helping him work out his complex problems.

Distinctive – We are uniquely intelligent, according to Robinson, “Every person’s intelligence is as unique as a fingerprint.” Each of us has an intelligence profile, a combination of some dormant and some dominant intelligences.

As I’ve been reading the first five chapters of this transformative book, I am starting to get it. I think I really can ask my students to propose their own idea for genius hour — not some version of my own.

Up until now, I have been hesitating. I think genius hour should be about research, reading, and writing. I thrive on reading and writing. For pity sake, this is the fifth blog post in four days. I need to write! It helps me learn, but I realize I have expected my students to have the same intelligences as me.

Last week, when a student asked about doing genius hour on something related to physical education, I said no, that he couldn’t just have more P.E. class for genius hour. (I’m sorry, J.)

I think Sir Ken Robinson would have slapped me upside the head if he had heard me. Why did I say that? Because I didn’t value physical intelligence. But now I do, so yes, you can do a P.E.-style genius hour. (I think! Do I dare?) What will it look like?

Genius hour friends, help me! Can I really let them learn anything? Do I really mean it when I say genius hour is for being creative and productive and learning what you choose? Friends, how do you handle choice?

Thank goodness #geniushour chat is coming up! Wednesday, December 5, at 9:00 p.m. EST. I need it!  The first half hour we’ll help each other figure out how to bring genius hour into the classroom. For the second half hour, we’ll discuss chapters 1-5 of Sir Ken Robinson’s book The Element.

Confession: I figured my eighth graders needed another role model besides their “No-you-can’t-develop-your-physical-intelligence teacher, so I started reading The Element to them today. So, you see, I need my PLN to continue to inspire me with genius hour.

Join us Wednesday for the best chat around! I can’t wait!

I’m Presenting about Genius Hour at ITEC!

Hello, PLN friends!

On October 15, I am going to present a session about genius hour at ITEC (Iowa Technology and Education Connection) Conference. I hope you will help me prepare my session by sharing with me your suggestions and successes.

My plan is to present it by answering these questions: Why? What? Who? When? Where? How?

These 5 W’s and an H are typical information-gathering questions, but I thought I’d take Simon Sinek‘s advice and start with why.

Here are some of the specific questions I would like to answer for the participants at my session. I need your help, though.

  • Why? – Why spend time doing genius hour with your students? Why is it important?

  • What? – What is genius hour? Can you offer a concise definition? What are some other names you call it?

  • Who? – Who does genius hour in your school? Does it work with all ages?

  • When? – When do you do genius hour? How often? How long?

  • Where? – Where are some interesting places students have participated in a genius hour project?

  • How? – How would someone new to genius hour get started?

Do you have any stories, photos, videos, or advice to share with me in answer to any or all of these questions? I want people to see how Genius Hour works! You can add information to this Google Doc or in a comment below. Thank you, in advance!

Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk about Starting with Why

Researcher’s Workshop

I have been trying to figure out how to make our daily experience at school more like genius hour. In my science and history classes I have wanted to experiment with “researcher’s workshop.” I want to allow students to choose their topics, based on the essential concepts and skills in the Core, and then let them loose, exploring and researching topics of their choice.

My idea is different than a typical research paper. Students have always had some topic choice when they write a research paper. So, what was different about my new idea?

I asked my students to find a topic ala Carl Rogers, who said:

“I am talking about any learning in which the experience of the learner progresses along this line: ‘No, no, that’s not what I want’; ‘Wait! This is closer to what I am interested in, what I need’; ‘Ah, here it is! Now I’m grasping and comprehending what I need and what I want to know!'”

My request was simple: Don’t start your research until you get to that third point–“Ah, here it is!” Then enjoy asking and answering questions about that topic.

They were then given three hours to research their self-generated essential questions. Not three hours to write a research paper. Three hours to immerse themselves in the learning that they assured me they really wanted and needed to know. I had to keep reminding them to not start their final project yet. “Just learn now. Become an expert.” “You may change your mind later.” “The game you are planning may take an unexpected turn during your research phase.”

I was really pleased with the level of engagement. They watched History Channel DVDs, Learning 360 clips, and an occasional YouTube video, taking notes. They moved from website to website, noting the URLs of their sources. They read children and adult nonfiction. They noted the conflicting information between sources they were reading and viewing. And perhaps the best part? As they learned something amazing, they spontaneously told someone sitting near them. (Or the most enthusiastic told the whole class!)

As I watched them work, I realized most people aren’t often given time (or for adults, take time) to do research just because they are passionate about the topic. Oh, to be sure, we all do research. When we or a loved one have a stake in the learning. When knowing it will get us what we want. For instance, years ago, prior to a job interview, I looked at the web site of the school. It seemed to me, they were overly-interested in reciprocal teaching. It was new to me, so I read everything I could about it before the interview. I just knew it would come up, and it did. I do research sometimes to help myself or another person, but less often for the pure joy of learning.  What I wanted for my students was joyful learning.

I told them the project at the end was less important than the research itself. I wanted them to have time to learn what they wanted to on a topic of interest. However, I did want them to use what they learned to be productive and creative (genius attributes), so there was a product due too. Some of the project ideas I floated:

  • a web site or wiki
  • a Fakebook page
  • a narrative or documentary movie
  • a poetry collection
  • a photographic essay
  • a Twitter account of a personality tweeting
  • an illustrated children’s book
  • other
One group made a slavery simulation that we participated in around the neighborhood.

As we finished this two-week unit and the presentations began, there was quite a variety. We had an iMovie with music created on Garage Band and a web page. We had a simulation activity, a board game, and a Fakebook page, which really showed her learning. There were two paper posters and one of my favorites, an animap of Sherman’s March to the Sea. In addition, there were several Google Presentations. For the most part, students were creative. I’m sorry to say, though, given the excellent experience with the research, I was a bit disappointed in the quality of some of the products.  Some were exceptional, but many were mediocre. (Maybe part of that is the fact that school is out for summer in three days!)

The exciting part for me, though, is that I can honestly say during the research time, 100% of the students were engaged for the majority of the time.

In addition to the Social Studies standards we were working on, there were many English Language Arts Common Core Standards introduced or practiced:

  • RI.8.1. Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • RI.8.2. Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to supporting ideas; provide an objective summary of the text.
  • RI.8.8. Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; recognize when irrelevant evidence is introduced.
  • RI.8.9. Analyze a case in which two or more texts provide conflicting information on the same topic and identify where the texts disagree on matters of fact or interpretation.
  • W.8.6. Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and present the relationships between information and ideas efficiently as well as to interact and collaborate with others.
  • W.8.7. Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
  • W.8.8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
  • W.8.9. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
      • Apply grade 8 Reading standards to literary nonfiction (e.g., “Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; recognize when irrelevant evidence is introduced”).

Twitter Chat for #geniushour

What a wonderful surprise I got from Gallit Zvi when she asked me to co-moderate a Twitter chat about #geniushour. We have both experienced this transformational approach to learning with our students, so we were excited to see if others wanted to talk about their experiences or had questions about genius hour.

We chose a day–March 7, the first Wednesday of the month–and a time–6 p.m. Pacific Time and 8 p.m. Central Time, Gallit’s and my timezone, respectively. Then we advertised a bit, and waited for the time to roll around.

We wondered if anyone but us would come.

We sat for a minute or two and wondered some more. Hugh, a committed genius hour teacher, wasn’t able to be there, but he had submitted his thoughts about genius hour an hour or two before the chat. It was nice to have something to get us started.

Then, we were pleasantly surprised to find that others DID come, passionate educators who are committed to student-centered  constructivist learning. (Here is a Twitter List of participants in the first #geniushour chat.)

A few contributions from our first #geniushour chat:

Gallit created a #geniushour wiki for all of us to share information and archive our tweets.

Based on the feedback at the end of the chat, I think we all learned from and enjoyed it!

I enthusiastically learned and enjoyed. I had two significant takeaways, which will change the course of my school year.

  1. In my classes we will now be having genius hour once a week, quite possibly due to this question Gallit posed. 
  2. I will let students continue working on projects until completed, as Joy does with her students. Instead of presenting after every genius hour, which has been my practice, now each person can determine when s/he is ready and present at that time (or once a month).

Simple ideas, but on my own thinking I had not figured these out. When I talked to others in this chat, I was challenged, inspired and empowered. My thoughts about this important idea were strengthened. If you want to read more of the tweets from our first chat, visit for the archive.

My students are happy I participated in #geniushour chat because coming up next Monday is our first weekly genius hour!

I’m already looking forward to the next #geniushour chat on April 4 at 9:00 pm ET. Who knows what I’ll take away from that one? I hope you will join us!