Life Happens: A Genius Hour Companion

There’s a John Lennon song that addresses an issue that teachers know all too well: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making [lesson] plans.”

Even the most responsive and differentiated approaches can fall victim to the different kinds of chaos that life throws our way (Technology, I’m talking to you). On top of that, for a host of reasons, even our most school-loving students have off days. Heck, I have my fair share of off days, too, if we’re being honest.

Once in awhile, my lesson, or unit, plans assume that students bring certain skills and abilities that have not yet been unlocked. Maybe I didn’t pre-assess well enough, maybe I misidentified students’ needs, maybe I made the wrong adjustments.

My 2018-2019 beat is all about the moves a teacher can make when life happens to our well-made plans. Here, I’ll be detailing successful adjustments, as well, as moves that didn’t work out so well. Most importantly, I’ll be describing some of the key lessons I learn as common (and not-so-common) issues pop in the Reading and Writing Workshop.

Life Happens Logo


Few things in education hold as much opportunity to impact students as Genius Hour. Because Genius hour holds so much promise, when “life happens”, or when we find ourselves in the weeds, the frustration can be felt even more deeply.

This post is not a step by step guide, nor is it a primer. If you’re looking for ideas on how to get started, you’ll want to check out Rebekah’s brilliant Genius Hour field guides, the first of which can be found here.

Rather, this post is meant to be a mini-guidebook to help mitigate disasters, prevent predictable issues, and enhance the learning that Genius Hour promises.

Jackhammers vs. Hummingbirds

Myth: give kids a chance to learn what they want to learn, and all will succeed.

Fact: Genius Hour (aka 20% Time, Passion Projects, etc.) will open doors for lots of students, but it also can freak kids out (at least, at first)–and for good reason!

In her Super Soul Sessions talk, Elizabeth Gilbert discusses an important idea for Genius Hour teachers to consider: some people are Jackhammers and some are Hummingbirds. Jackhammers, she explains, are people who seem to have been born knowing what they love, and they just drill away…like a jackhammer. Hummingbirds, however, aren’t sure what their passion might be–or maybe they have lots of things in which they might be interested. Like a hummingbird going from flower to flower, this kind of person isn’t content to just drill away at one thing. Hummingbirds often panic at the idea of having to choose something that they would love to work on for an extended period of time. After a short while, they become restless with their current flower and go out in seek of another.

For Hummingbirds, teachers may want to consider allowing students a few weeks to sample different projects–or have another plan in place for the moment when this student feels compelled to change projects.

As one plans for such an occasion, it will help to remember that each Hummingbird in your room might have a different reason for feeling the Hummingbird impulse, and as a result, different types of strategies could be in play. Some will want to change projects because they didn’t know where to begin and, consequently, chose an uninspiring topic. Some will struggle because they are new to the topic and they don’t know where to begin. Others might struggle because they joined a project because that’s where all the other hummingbirds were–only to realize, this wasn’t the flower they thought it would be.

This means there isn’t one single solution for how to best help Hummingbirds find their way. Instead, if Genius Hour teachers can think of ways they might help Hummingbirds work through each of the above issues, they are more likely to help their students have a successful Genius Hour experience. In other words, ask yourself, “How will I find out what’s causing each Hummingbird to want to bail?” and “In each of the various Hummingbird scenarios, how might I approach the student in order to have the best shot at a successful Genius Hour experience?”.

Also, and maybe most importantly, “What will a successful Genius Hour experience look like?” Without a crystallized version of success, you and your students risk aiming at the ghost of a moving target.


Whether researching, making, creating, or writing, every project involves, maybe even requires, a degree of struggle. As the old teacher saying goes, “If you aren’t feeling challenged, you’re likely not learning anything new.”

One way to help students through the struggles that they could–and should–encounter is to encourage, even celebrate them. Early in a Genius Hour unit, I plan a mini-lesson called “#TheStruggleIsReal”. Here’s the gist of it:

Almost every great thing ever made involved a point at which it’s creator hit some kind of obstacle or struggle…

Makers, today I want to teach you that a good Genius Hour project will have its fair share of struggling! This means that we will hit road blocks, difficult issues, and epic struggles along the way. Some of you have already run into these kinds of problems, and if so, congratulations! In this room, we celebrate struggles because this means you’re probably about to learn something, if you can persevere. So, starting today, when you hit upon a struggle, no matter how minor or major, we want you to share it with us by writing it down on a sentence strip (or sticky note, or…?), and sticking it up on our Wall of Struggles!

At the end of class we can share some just to celebrate the struggle…or we can help you problem-solve if you’d like the help. Could anyone share a struggle they’ve had so far to get us started?

(Don’t solve their problems as they share–rather, comment on why what they shared is such a good struggle to share)

Okay, so we all just shared some amazing examples of struggles that are very real. Some of these will teach you how not to do something, some of these will simply be steps you had to take to be successful. Regardless, the important thing is that we all struggle, and it’s an important part of the learning process. So, as you work today, don’t forget to write down any struggles you encounter so that we can celebrate your process.

…Alright, makers, off you go!

Now, at first, as students work, I have to continually remind them that their struggles are a good thing–and some believe me more than others. However, after a few sessions, I’ll start having students come up to me with a frustrate smile, saying things like, “Hey, Mr. W., I have an epic struggle for you. Check this out…” In either case, it takes the pressure off of road blocks that might otherwise derail a good number of students.

Avoid Genius Hour Drift: Plan Ahead and Make Adjustments

Two things to consider before you start Genius Hour: (1) In most cases the first project is not as successful as you might hope, and (2) if you don’t have a Genius Hour unit plan with a set end date, Genius Hour can end up lose its momentum and fall into a state of “Genius Hour Drift”.

Before we get to that, it’s also helpful to ask, how long should a Genius Hour unit be?

Well, it depends on a few things, the first of which being: how often and for how much time will your students be engaged with Genius Hour? Once a week for one class period? Two to three days a week? More? In any case, my rule of thumb is: the more time per week that students spend on Genius Hour, the shorter the Genius Hour unit.

In my class, I always try to keep the first few units especially short. This allows hummingbirds opportunities to change at the end of the unit, and it adds a sense of urgency that can help prevent Genius Hour Drift.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, a good number of students may not have ever done Genius Hour before, and how many times do we nail anything on our first try. The shorter you keep a unit, the more opportunities you give your students to struggle, fail, and learn from their mistakes.

Now, on to planning. Trust me, just because students are engaged in inquiry, it doesn’t mean you don’t need a plan. Whether you’re leveraging Genius Hour to help you teach students research strategies or whether you just want students to experience personal inquiry, there are a lot of hard and soft skills that you can teach them. In order to teach these well, you’ll want to consider the scope and sequence of what you might teach students through Genius Hour. These lessons might only be two minutes long, and they might be simple–like, “How to plan for a productive Genius Hour, even when you aren’t ‘feeling it'”.

While some mini-lessons may be unplanned and be based on a common struggle that emerged during a previous session, you won’t regret putting together some sort of infrastructure for your Genius Hour units. If nothing else, it will give you a sense of direction so that you don’t get lost in the weeds.

In case you’re wondering how I set up my typical Genius Hour plans, they usually look something like this:

  • Mini-lesson: up to 5% of your class time. Keep this short because the more you talk, the less they get to explore.
  • Independent work time: 80% of your class time. While students work, you confer and help troubleshoot.
  • Clean-up: depends on how messy you get, but definitely budget time for this!
  • Debrief/Share: 5%-10% of your class time. This might be a quick reminder of what you taught in the mini-lesson along with a few students sharing how they reached the objective, or it might just be a “Let’s share what we accomplished today” share.

Conferences = Your Best Teaching Opportunity

While the mini-lessons you plan will help move a great deal students toward the end goal, as always, your best teaching opportunity will lie with the one-on-one conference (or small group conference, if multiple students are working through the same things).

As with writing conferences, Genius Hour conferences might start with a simple “How’s it going?“, “Tell me about your plan for today,” or “How are you using [teaching from mini-lesson] today?”. Then, listen for something you can name that they are doing well, and think about one skill you might teach today to help the student go further with her project and/or learning, both now and on future projects.

Through conferences, I can help students who struggle with planning, using research strategies, and putting their learning into writing. I can also help students find non-conventional mentor “texts”. For example, if a student is working on a coding project, I can guide her toward video tutorials (she might, at some point, make her own tutorial) or projects with in which the programmer open-sourced her code (there are tons and tons of Scratch projects that could double as coding mentor texts, and if you have an advanced coder, direct her toward a site like Github) These sites will help the student learn basic coding moves, and later will serve as mentor texts when the student is ready to publish.

Don’t forget “The Why”

Above all, remember, even if you create the most perfect plans–and contingency plans–life will still manage to happen.

When issues pop up or when you find yourself in the weeds, it helps to have thought through why you believe in inquiry enough to take on something like Genius Hour. Put it into a short, pithy sentence. You can use it…like a sort of mantra.

Let’s work through this together. Right now.

Why did you get into Genius Hour when you could have done…anything else? Maybe you suspected that students will do better work and be happier in your class when they care about their work. Perhaps you’re hoping to spark students’ interests–maybe reach a few kids that school typically leaves behind…

Whatever it is, remind yourself every chance you get. Use it to remind yourself that you want Genius Hour to fulfill its massive potential, to teach your students in the most meaningful ways possible. When you constantly remind yourself of the why, you can avoid falling into the weeds–or least, spend less time in them.

Working through Genius Hour kinks? Interested in inquiry? Share in comments, on Facebook, or on Twitter. You can find me @MrWteach

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