How to Build Community Leaders of Today—and Tomorrow—Through Student...

Personalized Learning

How to Build Community Leaders of Today—and Tomorrow—Through Student Genius Hours

By Jen Schneider     Sep 4, 2017

How to Build Community Leaders of Today—and Tomorrow—Through Student Genius Hours

This article is part of the guide: What Personalized Learning Looks Like Across the Country: The 2017 Fifty States Project.

When it comes to personalized learning in the classroom, no single thing has been as powerful as Genius Hour for my students.

Genius Hour has its early foundations at companies like Google which gave their employees 20 percent of their work week to study and implement innovative ideas that would better the company. Ideas like Gmail, Google News, and Adsense were born from this time.

It’s not a bad model for teachers to emulate, either.

In my classroom, Genius Hour means students get to use at least one hour of their class time each week to explore their own questions, create projects, and share with others. When I first heard about carving out this time, I was excited to try it with my students because I thought it would be a fresh way to integrate research and questioning into my Language Arts curriculum. What happened, however, was a side effect I could have never envisioned: This form of personalized learning turned a team of 120 individual eighth graders into a community.

Classroom Community

Genius Hour has three main rules. First, the students must generate a question that cannot be answered by a simple Google search. Next, they must create something, whether it is a book, blog, video, or a physical object. Finally, they must share their creation with either their classmates, school, community, or even the world via the web.

Inevitably, some students struggle to come up with a question they want to investigate. However, letting them latch onto a classmate’s project is not always such a bad thing. Friendships can be formed between students with similar interests, and students who struggle to find things to study may be inspired by the ideas of others. What transpires is a community of learners who are invested in each others’ projects.

“Jacob” (not his real name) was a student, like many boys his age, who was fascinated with gaming and the hardware associated with certain gaming systems. “Alex” had no idea what he wanted to do for Genius Hour, but when students shared their proposals, he was eager to hear what Jacob was planning and asked a lot of questions. Jacob’s project to fix broken XBox gaming systemsturned out to be a larger task than he thought, and he was happy to have Alex partner with him. The two students, who barely knew each other before the project began, not only formed a classroom partnership but a friendship. Jacob’s mother reported at conferences that Alex’s friendship had helped Jacob improve his grades and work completion as they would study together and then work on their project frequently outside of school.

Genius Hour also gives ownership to student learning. When my students walked into my classroom each Friday (our designated Genius Hour day), they were met with “Toby” strumming the guitar (his project was to teach himself to play), “Katie” designing an outfit by sketching out plans and sewing on her machine, or “Maddy” sprawled on the floor with paints to create a mural reflecting a novel we’d just read. This was our community. They were learning from each other, and I was learning so much from them. The relationships I was building with these 120 kids by knowing what they were passionate about, what they wanted to change about the world by learning, creating, and sharing was worth more than any student inventory or test I could give them.

School Community

When word got out about our Genius Hour classroom, other teachers and my administrators started to take notice of the learning and excitement exuding from our classroom walls. District administrators had me present to teachers on how to start Genius Hours in their own classrooms. As more teachers in the building began to get involved, the impact on the school was significant.

Two students helped another teacher start a Gay Straight Alliance club that helped LGBTQ students feel more accepted in school. Meetings would consistently have 40 or more students in attendance. Teachers reported that students who rarely spoke in class were starting to participate and hold their heads up. Student leaders were calling out other kids on bullying.

One group of students decided to raise money for new swing choir costumes by selling candy grams for their Genius Hour project. They researched business practices, advertising campaigns, and within four days raised $400.

In a nearby elementary school, a student collected 2,500 books after learning about illiteracy statistics in the world. He wanted children in the community with limited access to books to have a window into reading.

Our tiny classroom project was making big waves in our community, and it was about more than personalized interests. Students and teachers were making a difference.

Community Outside of School

Teachers strive to teach kids to be productive members of society, and the links with Genius Hour to the community are incredibly impactful. Teachers can help facilitate mentorships with community members by reaching out to friends, colleagues, businesses, and connecting via social media.

When “Katie” wanted to design her own clothing, I helped find her a mentor, a 19-year-old college student who was designing clothes that would soon grace the runways of New York City’s fashion week. This mentorship allowed Katie to attend Omaha Fashion Week and a business entrepreneurial conference at Metro Community College as well as make connections in the fashion industry. Katie plans to study business (in connection with fashion) in college.

As long as it’s fiscally feasible and safe, a Genius Hour topic rarely gets turned down. In fact, some projects that seem too expensive can be subsidized by reaching out to community members. This not only helps our community give back, but it teaches our students how to reach out, write proposals, and communicate effectively. Inspired by Katie’s creative endeavors and diligence, I called a local fabric store for donations. I was told I would need to fill out some forms, have a tax ID, and present paperwork. Katie went to the same store and came to school a day later with bags of fabric. Genius Hour taught me to let go and let my students showcase their roles as active, engaged citizens. Their voices are powerful, and sometimes even stronger than our own.

These connections are beneficial not only for our students but the community at-large. Fostering relationships within the places where our students will attend school and possibly contribute as working members of society is beneficial for the common good.

Our students are future employees and leaders, but we shouldn’t be telling them that we’re preparing them for the future. In fact, programs like Genius Hour are preparing them for right now. They can make a difference today in their classrooms, cities, and the world.

Jen Schneider is a middle school Language Arts teacher in Omaha, Nebraska and a PhD student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She blogs about educational technology at Creative Tech Teacher and work/family balance.

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