Get Started with Genius Hour this Year

Do you find yourself searching for that one project that would truly engage your students? That would empower them to explore their passions? Do you sometimes feel that despite the many ways you are trying to creatively engage them, you just can't reach everyone? 

Enter, genius hour. 20 time. Passion projects.

It doesn't matter what you call it, Google's idea of giving their employees twenty percent of their working hours to work on related projects of their own devising is sweeping through education like the stomach flu through your classroom. Except it's awesome.

I've been reading, watching, and listening to everything I can find about genius hour lately, and my goal in this post is to get you ready to launch your own genius hour ASAP. Because based on what I've discovered, you really want to get started with this as soon as possible. 

If you already know a lot about genius hour and just wish you had some good clear materials to get started with it, you can skip the rest of this post and just grab this amazing free genius hour resource pack created by the epic Laura Randazzo. (More about her take on genius hour later, for those of you sticking around!). 

For everyone else, get excited because here comes a clear rundown of genius hour and exactly how you can put in place, starting anytime you say. 

The Issue of Standards

Before we dive in, let me quickly address the issue of standards. There's no question genius hour can tick off the standards boxes no problem. The question is only how tightly you want to hold the reins.

Looking down the list of ELA standards, the majority of genius hours will hit multiple writing, researching, presenting, range of writing, and college and career readiness standards. 

You can always require that students build an ELA component into their genius hour proposals, which is ridiculously easy to do. Think of almost any project in the world, and you could have a student script and record a podcast or video, write an article, start a blog, etc. about the project as they do it. 

One of my favorite education writers, John Spencer, talks about how he used "Geek-Out blogs" as a genius hour project, hitting nearly every writing standard, in his article "Here's How to Empower Students While Also Hitting the Standards." He took the list of standards, rewrote them into "student-friendly learning goals," and had the students themselves keep track of their own progress toward the goals throughout their genius hour projects. 

Fitting Into your Schedule

There are as many ways to fit genius hour into your schedule as there are schools. Let's look at four quick examples to give you an idea of the range.

#1 Fed up with how useless school hours seem to be around state testing, a teacher schedules an intensive dive into a genius hour project for the weeks before and after testing. 

#2 Eager to get to know her students and their passions from the get-go, a teacher introduces genius hour on the first day of school, spends the first week with students nailing down proposals and schedules, then gives them Fridays every other week for the rest of the year to work on their projects, wrapping up with final presentations in the fourth quarter.

#3 When given the opportunity to propose a new school elective for juniors and seniors, a teacher chooses to propose an "innovation class," built around genius hour projects. Students will propose and complete three different projects throughout the semester. 

#4 In an effort to fight back the gloom of late winter, a teacher decides to devote all of February to genius hour projects, meeting with five students individually each day as others work. On Fridays every student shares their progress in a class meeting. 

You can do a miniature genius hour in just a couple of days, or expand it to go on for an entire term or year. It's up to you. I'll be sharing more about shorter term genius hours with a more specific structure later on, in the special section for middle school ELA. 

Basic Structure

Education writer A.J. Juliani has given A LOT of thought to genius hour. As I researched this post, I clicked on to website after website with post titles like "Your Top 10 Genius Hour Questions Answered." But every post was guest written by A.J. Juliani, or involved an interview with him. So with no further ado, here's the basic structure he offers for diving into genius hour, as translated by me.

Step 1: Teachers make a plan (lay out the timing, figure out their benchmarks).

Step 2: Students choose the topic of their project and the product they will create.

Step 3: Students pitch what they'll be doing and why, share how they'll do it (a basic schedule and plan) and what success would look like.

Step 4: Students research and learn, reading, doing interviews, working with mentors, discovering all they can. They document their learning somehow, through blogs, videos, podcasts, reflections, teacher meetings, etc. 

Step 5: Students MAKE. They create something. Design something. Build something. 

Step 6: Students present on their process. It's OK to have failures large and small. The process and the effort is what really counts. The final day could involve a gallery walk, where students have created visual presentations of their work. It could be a day of Ted-style talks. It could be a chance to watch videos made by all students about their projects. It could take any shape, as long as students have a chance to share their project back to the learning community. 

Project Examples

Genius hour, like a choice reading program, really allows you to develop your relationships with your students. 

As they search for and pursue the project that truly fits their passion, you will have a chance to learn about them. If you choose to give students complete freedom, they could do anything (appropriate), from starting a small business delivering pizzas to the school campus during lunch to starting an anti-bullying social media campaign. 

But genius hour can also have more specifics. You can, for example, require there to be a video, podcast, or blog element, so as to keep the ELA tie-ins ultra clear for your questioning parents and administrators. 

You could even structure the genius hour within a platform like Youtube, Instagram, or Blogger. Let students pursue any (appropriate) interest then create related video, photo, or written content. 

Imagine a genius hour set entirely inside the video platform. One student starts a fashion channel, creating videos for teens who don't know what to wear to school. As she learns from other fashion gurus within Youtube and at major magazines, puts together outfits, scripts videos, adds captions and special effects, and responds to viewers, she learns research, writing, and media skills. 

Another student creates a video-gaming channel, another a channel that helps people learn conversational Spanish. Every student experiences the rush of connecting to real people in the world who want to learn what they know. 

But remember, depending on how you structure your genius hour, you can give students complete project freedom but still build in research, writing, and presenting skills within your benchmarks.

Case Study

Let's look at the way ELA teacher Laura Randazzo does it in her classroom. One key takeaway I had from her is that teachers should do a genius hour project too. Her first year she learned to play the ukulele! 

She does the project alongside her students in the spring, and they spend one class period per week for eight weeks together on it. She offers five basic rules:

1. They should do something new.
2. They need to create something.
3. They must connect their project to ELA somehow.
4. They need to meet with her if they ever feel overwhelmed, lost, adrift, etc.
5. They should be flexible to making adjustments as they work through the process.

Her benchmarks (and the elements she grades) are clear and simple. Every student begins by giving a sixty second pitch to the class. Then somewhere in the middle they complete a checkpoint meeting with her. Every week when they have their genius hour time, they complete an exit ticket check-in letting her know what they've been up to and how things are progressing. Then at the end, they do a final presentation which documents their PROCESS. Their final grade is not about the level of success they achieve, but about all this work along the way. 

Laura has made all of the resources (an introductory Prezi that is AWESOME, project guidelines, rubrics, exit tickets, etc.) available as a free download. No strings attached. Even if you plan to structure your project very differently, I would join the 44,000 + other teachers who have already downloaded it so you can use the Prezi and see the way she designed her useful rubrics. 

Most people seem to agree with Laura Randazzo that grading the process is what counts. Choose your benchmarks and grade students on their effort and follow-through, not on their results. Anyone who tries anything is going to fail sometimes, so help your students with their growth mindset and honor those failures as worthy efforts that become valuable research. 

Special Section: Middle School 

If you are wondering how to fit this into your middle school curriculum, you might want to start smaller scale. Here are three examples of fun ways to dive into genius hour while keeping a pretty firm grip on your middle school classroom.

#1 Spend the two weeks before Christmas break letting students create blogs on the topics of their choosing. Use specific post assignments (like those featured in this blog post). In this way, you let students explore their own interests, you keep the ELA focus very clear, and you take back a chunk of time that is otherwise easily lost to holiday movies and general insanity. 

#2 In the first term of the year, get to know your students and their interests more deeply by letting them work, in class, on a genius hour project every Friday. Also make it their (optional) weekend homework, so if they want to dive deep because they are genuinely excited and interested, they can. Wrap up the project by having them create Prezis about what they accomplished and present back to small groups of students with similar interests/directions to their projects. 

#3 Let students spend the last three weeks of the school year on a passion-driven final project, requiring each one to create a video about that project to post to a class genius hour youtube channel. Do mini-lessons on how to script, shoot, edit, and publish a movie. Have students share their movies with three people who are important to them outside of the classroom, having each sign and comment on a final reflection sheet the student will turn in. 

Depending on your results when you start with a small-scale project, you may want to expand and grow your genius hour unit. But starting with a reasonably modest genius hour will allow you to test the waters and see what works well for you and your middle-school students. 

"Genius Hour Never Fails." - A.J. Juliani

But what if you have a few students in your program who just don't fall in love with genius hour? What if they don't want to drive their own learning, and brainstorming project ideas with them isn't cutting it? 

Keep them involved in the work of the class. Let them help someone else. Get to know them better as people, so you can guide them towards something they can truly enjoy doing. 

A.J. Juliani has written a wonderful article called "What to do when Genius Hour Fails." Spoiler alert, the article is going to tell you that genius hour never fails! But it's also going to give you some great tips and case studies on helping those students engage, so if you anticipate this as a major issue with your group of students, check out the full article here

And Now...

Go rock it! It's time to implement genius hour in your classroom, and I can't wait to hear about the results. If you're not already there, I hope you'll hop over into my joyfully busy Facebook group, Creative High School English, and share your thoughts and questions about genius hour and anything else classroom-related you want to chat about with more than 1,500 creative ELA teachers from all over the world.  

Looking for more creative options for your classroom? Check out these other popular posts:

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