I, Joy Kirr, am a middle school teacher, author, and speaker. My 7th grade ELA (English Language Arts) classes are working to improve their lives through student-directed learning - without marks throughout the year. This is a log of my learning experiences... Want to have me speak with your staff or facilitate a workshop? Here is my PORTFOLIO.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What's the value in Frozen Marbles?

A respected Twitter colleague of mine wrote a post last week titled, “Be Careful of Genius Hour.” As soon as I read it, I realized that the comments section wasn't the place for my thoughts on this close-to-my-heart subject...

If I could put Laura’s post into a question, it might be “During Genius Hour time, are students learning something valuable?” This has been asked before, in a different way, in Denise  Krebs’ post here - “Must the Students?” - Must the students be able to explain why their project is worth learning? (Check out the comments on that one - and add your own!) I love that this question is still being asked, as it is one that many teachers, parents, and administration ask. Let’s keep this conversation going.

I sometimes think some of my students' projects are not "valuable." However, here is where I find the value in doing something such as baking brownies (which, for us, is done at home) or playing Minecraft...

Collaboration, cooperation, social skills… if they are working with friends
  • Getting prepared
  • Following directions
  • Perseverance / Stamina / Determination
  • Follow through (cleaning up, whether they succeeded or failed)
  • Doing what they love and being proud to share that with others
How to make baking brownies “more valuable...” Ask this student
...to try 4 different recipes, and create one of his/her own
...to have a taste test with 5 different recipes, one being his or her own
...to learn how to decorate the brownies in various ways
...to learn how to shape the brownies so it makes a design
...to make brownies to sell for a specific purpose/charity
...to start a blog with dessert recipes he/she has tried and modified

How to make playing Minecraft “more valuable…” Ask this student
...to build something to scale - such as their school or a monument in town
...to add to their 3D model something new that isn’t in the original - something they think should be there (something to make this place even better)
...to create a tutorial on how to build in Minecraft
...to create a video when they are finished with one aspect, to show what they are learning along the way
...to ask other students what they’d like to see from a Minecraft project (I have a student who is making a roller coaster quiz game in Minecraft - if you get an answer wrong, you get ejected! I have no clue how he’s doing this…!)

ALWAYS ALWAYS ask, “How could you have done better?” and “What would you change if there was a ‘next time?’” and “How have you grown with this experience?” or “How will this experience help you in life?” I believe the reflection piece is necessary for more learning to occur the next time. I have students fill out this reflection form (adapted from Denise Krebs’ form on the wiki) every time they share what they’ve done / learned with the class. Not every project is something I would deem “valuable.” I’m not in seventh grade either.  I like coming to school. I find time to do what I love there and at home. Do your students?

Any project can be a learning experience. It may not be up to par with what we think constitutes valuable class time, but ask yourself this…
  • Is the student engaged?
  • Does the student feel like he matters?
  • Does the student want to come back to school the next day?
  • And something that helps with the rest of your week: Do you know your student better?
Here’s a photo from the latest quick presentation from a student of mine… “Frozen Marbles” she called it. She filled up balloons with water and froze them on a tray in the freezer at school. The next week, she and her friends peeled the balloons off of the ice. Here is the result:

She was intrigued by the design inside of the ice. She wondered what she could DO with the frozen marbles. Where is she going next? She’s going to try a bunch of quick experiments and video tape them. Her final presentation will be a video of all she has tried, including their successes and failures, and what she's learned. Is this valuable? She’s engaged in learning - on her own. When she presented her findings on this tiny project, the rest of the class was rapt, making her feel important. She wants to keep learning, and to try more difficult experiments. I get to learn more and more about her each week.

I obviously don’t have all the answers. I'm still learning, along with my students. Please, let’s keep this conversation going so we can help each other help our students become life-long learners...


  1. I would say those frozen marbles are valuable...they look like art to me.

  2. I am very new to GH. These words of yours will stay with me when I think about my views on my students' projects: "Not every project is something I would deem “valuable.” I’m not in seventh grade either. I like coming to school. I find time to do what I love there and at home. Do your students?" Thank you for this insight.

  3. The "frozen marble" project made me laugh. But see, to the student, this is something interesting. Why not let her investigate? She is persevering. She is reporting out her findings. School is fun for her. How many students can stay focused on one topic for a long period of time? Thank you for this post.