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.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Genius Hour: An Avenue to Better Teaching

Genius Hour has gotten a lot of attention on Twitter, blogs, and in classes the start of this school year.

With all the success stories, there will be a few who criticize, or write to provoke conversation, at the very least.

I'm writing today to defend Genius Hour, and explain how it has affected the rest of my students' week.

The latest post that spurred this is from Sylvia Martinez (@smartinez) - "Design Thinking, Computational Thinking, Genius Hour, and Making in the Classroom - good, bad, worse." I will not pretend to know about computational thinking, and only know a teeny bit about design thinking, but I read the Genius Hour section with great interest.

The term "Genius Hour" came because a close Twitter friend of mine, Denise Krebs (@mrsdkrebs) saw a tweet from a passionate Angela Maiers. Denise's story is here in her blog post from November of 2011. In Classroom Habitudes: Teaching Habits and Attitudes for 21st Century Learning, Angela modifies Seth Godin's words and says, "You are a genius, and the world needs your contribution" (27). A big idea behind this time given to students is to show them that we value them. We think they should be learning what THEY want to learn, in addition to what we are expected to teach. This idea of letting students own their own learning and giving 60 minutes a week to "electrify your job" also comes from Daniel Pink's book, Drive. Whether or not Google gives their employees 20% of their time to work on personal projects, this time can be given to children if administration is supportive of the idea.

The two paragraphs that had me feeling the urge to write this were about the name. The first paragraph was about the name "Genius Hour." I've written about using this name prior, in this post called "Genius." I won't be reiterating it here. What I will do is tell you what's happened in my class this year, as a result of spending FORTY minutes talking about what genius is, and what it is not. We spent time discussing the seven "habitudes" of geniuses that Angela teaches about in Classroom Habitudes. Here are some quips from my 7th graders that I've actually written down for a post such as this.
     "These are great! We have some really creative people in this class!"
     "That must be his genius!!"
     "Look at what I did - it's genius!"
     "He's got perseverance, creativity, AND imagination."
     "I worked on being 'adaptable' yesterday after school..."
     "Please add me to the 'resident expert' list under 'neat & organized.'"
My students are realizing what they're skilled at, and with what skills they may need help. They have already started asking each other for help during our creative days (Dot Day being the most recent). They are relying on me less this year than any other group I've had, and instead going to each other. We have already started building a wonderful community of learners. I'm going to continue telling my students that they have genius in them. We all do.

Another paragraph focused on the "20% time" we are giving students. First I have to say that I'm very fortunate to work where I do. Many teachers do not have any time to spare - to hand over to their students. Others who are allowed time for this need to make sure it ties to standards, and that students are graded on it. I have the luxury of attaching it to standards my way (see this LiveBinder and specific plans I'm using in 7th grade ELA), but I am also allowed leeway on how to use the rest of our time during the week. Here is a list of how, by implementing Genius Hour ideas in my classes, the concepts have seeped into the other 80% of our time.
     Students can choose where (and how) to sit, as long as it's safe and not distracting to them or others.
     Students can write in response to a prompt of their choice, as long as they write in relation to our goal or focus for the day.
     Students decorate the room. Many put up their own ideas made at home.
     There is no teacher desk. It is converted into a student station, with supplies for students to use whenever they have a need. (They can also sit there!)
     The only front of the room is when we have the projector on. The rest of the room is fair game for where the speaker (me or a student) stands. (I'm actually always on the move.)
     Student passions are used as catalysts for discussions or writing, or reading, or...
     Students give book talks.
     Students read what they choose.
     Students take pictures for our movie updates for parents.
     Students have blogs for authentic purposes - not for grades.
     Students are asked, "Why not?" more often than they hear the word, "No."

I am no longer the "sage on the stage." I am truly the "guide on the side" for most of our lessons. Implementing Genius Hour in my classroom has made me ask these questions (from p34 of The Passion-Driven Classroom) every day: Who is in charge of learning at our school? Who does the most work in our classroom? Who does the creating, constructing, producing, performing? The answer must be: The learners.

Many teachers remain disconnected from their students. As Angela Maiers and Amy Sandvold share in The Passion-Driven Classroom, "96% of teachers reported that creativity should be promoted in the classroom. However, when asked which students they actually preferred to teach, teachers chose the students who were most compliant" (5). "Messy" learning, which is what Genius Hour is, and times when the learners are working the hardest, is difficult for me to see with my "old school" eyes. I like order. I appreciate quiet. ... But the things I HEAR from students during these "messy" times are precious gems. They alert me to the fact that students are learning, and enjoying the process simultaneously. That's what it's about. And that is how implementing Genius Hour has affected my teaching during the other 80% of the week.


  1. Thank you for writing this, Joy!

    I just commented on Denise's last blog about Genius Hour (http://mrsdkrebs.edublogs.org/2013/09/08/our-expectations-of-creative-genius/) and I think I could really just say the same thing!

    You both have written so thoughtfully about why Genius Hour is important and special to our students!

    You touch on so many important points!

    Love the question you pose toward the end of your post: "Who is in charge of learning at our school? Who does the most work in our classroom? Who does the creating, constructing, producing, performing? The answer must be: The learners."

    So well said.

    And I love that you included comments from your students. Mine have made similar observations and it just warms my heart! I know Genius Hour matters to them and has made a big difference in them as learners.

    Thank you for this brilliant post!

  2. So many amazing things happen with "messy learning" . . . after all, it's what the real world looks like. I compliment you on your student centered approach and love hearing about your adventures. Your openness in sharing make ideas accessible by all. I am blessed to know you.


Thank you for adding to the conversation!