Genius Hour + Writing Workshop: Do-Overs and Take-Aways

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This semester I’ve been chronicling my first-ever experiment with Genius Hour and its intersection with the regular machinations of our writing workshop. You can catch up on the other posts in this series before diving into this wrap up!

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Genius Hour, and the school year, are almost over. My students are writing their final blog posts this week and bringing in their final Genius Hour products to share. I’m already mentally planning for next year — ways to get the kids started sooner, and stronger; ways to keep them engaged and accountable; ways to effectively show parents that a Genius Hour project paired with weekly blogging asks more of students than a traditional “ten-page research paper”.

Here are some of my reflections — the good, the bad, and the ugly — in no particular order:

I didn’t appreciate how cool these kids are before Genius Hour.

I loved my students, but Genius Hour — truly seeing their minds on display — has given me a whole new appreciation for just how cool these kids are. I didn’t know that Sam was capable of building his own computer and using it to code twinkle lights … or that he’d even want to. I didn’t know that Lucy is fascinated by maps and that she could sustain 14 weeks of research and writing by studying different kinds of maps and philosophies of cartography! I didn’t know that Robbie is into hip hop and curious about production or that Henry wants to be a football coach someday.

Genius Hour made me realize that I knew my kids well … one-dimensionally. I know so much more about them, and appreciate so much more about them, now.

Some kids did Genius Hour and some kids learned through Genius Hour.

Here’s an interesting dichotomy I noticed. The projects with energy, the ones that were truly fascinating to watch, were driven by students who were truly learning through the Genius Hour process.  Even students who were working in familiar territories were able to deepen their knowledge or move forward in their process.

These projects made for fun reading and fun writing; these were the students who had focus and drive through the very end of the project.

The students who basically reported what they already know fared less well.  Many of these projects had a distinct checking-the-box feeling. And the really interesting part is that this distinction didn’t fall across the lines of my generally most motivated and least motivated students.

Genius Hour energized some of my ho-hum students in surprising ways! Letting these kids run after their passions produced exactly the desired effect — they came alive!  And, conversely, some of my top-of-the-class students stayed so safe that they wrote beautiful posts, did smart research, and yet discovered nothing new.

This is a big distinction that I am still mulling over and thinking through. I’m not entirely sure how to change this next time.

Next time, start with a mini-Genius Hour!

Last week, Noah wrote such a helpful, practical guide to some common Genius Hour pitfalls. (I wish I had had this post months ago!) Among his many amazing suggestions is starting Genius Hour really, really small.

I did the exact opposite this year. We did Genius Hour once, and it was for an entire semester. (Cue the big-eye, stunned emoji.) Next time, we will do a tiny, 2-3 week Genius Hour at the end of first semester to teach kids the ropes. More than helping them understand rhythms and routines, though, this mini-Genius Hour will also help them see what makes a good topic … and what doesn’t.

I’ll tally the final results as part of an exam-day reflection, but I would be willing to bet that about 1/3 of my students (even those with good projects) would change topic if they could. I think dipping our toes into the Genius Hour pool first will help us eliminate duds and hone in on the very most creative ideas.

Weekly blogging is a lot to grade … but it gives kids much faster writing feedback

To be honest, there were weeks when I doubled up on reading and grading blog posts. (This week I graded both post #10 and post #11.) But, while it was A LOT of writing to move through each week, it was fun reading. And, writers received feedback so much more quickly than when we are in big writing workshop units.

I’ve never gotten through more than 7 big workshop writing studies in a single school year. Of course, writers receive loads of informal feedback in writing conferences and conversations along the way, but during Genius Hour, writers were getting about 9 rounds of feedback in addition to our regularly-scheduled writing workshops. They could make instantaneous changes. And I could see much more quickly when they weren’t!

Any blogging could work this way — it doesn’t have to be linked to Genius Hour. But while I will be a little relieved for the writing flood to subside, I think it was really, really good for my writers.

Get back to the reading.

You may remember from my first post, I substituted our weekly independent reading routine for Genius Hour with the intention that we would be all be reading as a part of Genius Hour anyway.

It kind of happened for some kids.

Some projects included reading more naturally than others. (Some of my kids are more natural readers than others!) And for some kids, reading fell far by the wayside. One parents (very sweetly!) mentioned how sad she was to see her son, who had been reading voraciously for the last two years of my class, push reading to the side once again during the course of this project. My heart broke.

So, next year, reading will be a required part of each and every week. In fact, I think blog posts will begin with “What I Read This Week: ______”.

Now, my best buddy librarian and I are going to have to get a lot more creative to make this happen — we are going to have to dig into students’ topics more deeply ourselves. We’re going to have to figure out how to get all our students reading digitally from public libraries through the Kindle app and Overdrive.

But the reading is important. It’s the root of everything, really. And I don’t want Genius Hour to stand in the way of that.

I need to emphasize branching.

Here’s what some kids figured out that others didn’t (and I didn’t think to explicitly teach them): the best projects branched in all kinds of crazy,  unexpected, and fascinating directions. Very often, this had a positive correlation with students who were learning through the project and those who were simply doing the project.

The kids who struggled to sustain the project over the entire semester were the kids who took the project very literally and very linearly — “I am studying baseball, and every week I will research one kind of player and report back on my findings.”

The kids who succeeded most started with a seed of an idea and chased it wherever it followed.  Isabelle was one of these writers. She started with an idea about hiking because she is going on a big hiking trip this summer. She wanted to spend Genius Hour researching gear, training, etc. And she did! But she ended up in some crazy places along the way. She created this “interest mountain” (her term that I love) to show where she started and where it led:

Interest Mountain.jpg

She hiked. She bought new boots and a new backpack. But she also studied (extensively) the flora and fauna of the Appalachian Mountains and became curious about indigenous peoples and their religions. Whenever she thought, “Hmmm. I wonder …”, that’s what she studied for the next week.

I want to be able to explicitly teach kids to do this — to have tangible curiosity that they can pursue.

We need goals and sub-goals and research questions

Weekly blogging would have been easier if we had outlined big project-long goals and then smaller sub-goals from the get-go. Next year, I want to start with this, knowing that they can (and should!) evolve along the way.

I also think it would help my researchers-and-writers if they worked from a research question each week. I think that’s subconsciously what Isabelle did in her interest mountain, actually. This would provide a lot of focus for the kids who, each week, “Don’t know what to do now.”

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It wasn’t a perfect experiment — no experiment ever is. There are always disengaged kids who barely move through the motions, and I had that. But there would have been more disengaged kids had we written Ye Olde Research Paper. There will always be disengaged kids.

There are always teaching gaffs and gaps that I wish I could undo and make me scratch my head saying, “Huh. I didn’t know I needed to say that.”

But, you know, it was a great experiment. One I’m truly proud of because it made me so proud of my kids. It showed me and them what they can do in a super self-driven process.

What did you experiment with this year? What will you take away? What will you do over? What are your “next times” for Genius Hour or any other big swing you took in your classroom this year?  Leave a comment below to share, find us on Facebook, or send a Tweet my way @RebekahODell1. 

2 Comments

  1. This reflection is so awesome to read at the end of the year because my kids are wrapping up their Genius Hour projects (we call them curiosity projects). I’ve enjoyed reading your posts about this entire process. Thank you for sharing so much!!

  2. I love the idea of the branching/interest mountain. I noticed this year that my students need to work on brainstorming (and luckily I’ll have most of them again next year) and knowing where to go next. Please share where this thinking takes you!

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