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, April 12, 2015

It's Not Perfect

Elisa Waingort left a comment recently on one of my blog posts...
Recently I have been feeling disheartened at what I see during Genius Hour with my students. I feel that all they want to do is to use their Genius Hour time to socialize with their friends at the same time that they pretend to be doing something important. I have been trying out different tools to help them reflect on their projects and to get them to elevate their purposes for what they're doing. I'm not looking for a cure for cancer. I am looking for some thought and genuine interest in what they're doing.   
~comment abstract from Elisa Waingort
I've been there.

I'll bet LOTS of us trying Genius Hour have been there. We don't see much of it on the Twitter hashtag, but that may be because most of us don't share our failures (yes, I see us not being able to motivate kids as OUR failures even though there are so many influences...). Most of us share our successes and celebrations.

This "apathy" towards projects happens with an average of one-two students in each of my classes. What factors might contribute to this?
          - Never been asked to do anything like this in prior school years
          - Driven by grades, and this is not graded
          - No authentic audience to share their work with (yet)
          - Parents are not very involved
          - Can't find that one thing that he/she really wants to pursue
          - Isn't really in to any type of activity at home outside of school
          - Laziness / Would rather sleep

A few of us had this discussion just last June due to this reflection by one of my students in January of last school year.
Published with Student Permission

In fact, I created a new tab on the LiveBinder just because we DO have students who struggle (or should be struggling instead of what I think of as "wasting precious time"). #20time guru Kevin Brookhouser says "mixed success" during 20% Time is "pretty typical" in this impromptu Google Hangout. A.J. Juliani suggests we help students find a new purpose in this blog post about when Genius Hour fails. Karl Lindgren-Streicher writes about those "do nothings" and "The Suck" during your Genius Hour / 20% time. We've been there. I have strong doubts when I hear a teacher say that EVERY single student is engaged during this time.

I have a tendency to think of this type of student as a "slacker." I try not to label my students in any way ("He is ACTING like a slacker right now"), but this word keeps popping up for students who are not motivated to choose something to do/study and stick with it. My brain shouts, "This is supposed to be what YOU WANT TO DO! YOU are the reason we are trying this in class! It's for KIDS LIKE YOU!"
How I often feel... Photo by Joy Kirr.

Frustration mounts, and I try various tactics...
          - Have the student fill in these sheets to see what you like, and we'll conference afterwards
          - Have the student try out these websites, and we'll conference after they've tried a few
          - Have the student document what everyone else in class is doing and create a movie/advertisement to share
          - Have the student read through other student ideas and choose from there
          - Ask the student - what can we do about this?
          - Have the student reflect/document each week on what they did during this hour - if this still doesn't work, I attach a GRADE to it (against everything I've learned)
          - Have the student research "Why Genius Hour-type learning does NOT work for me"
          - When we get to fourth quarter, the threat of presenting in front of peers, teachers, and parents usually spurs on SOME type of project.

I feel that, although I am very calm with these one to two students in each class, they should be able to see the smoke coming out of my ears. I am THAT frustrated.

I agree with Elisa...
I'm having lots of second thoughts about Genius Hour. Phew! There! I said it.
I question what I'm doing EVERY SINGLE WEEK. Change which comes from some serious reflection helps make our classes better.

That being said, we've all got some students with great projects. Maybe our students aren't curing cancer, but many - no, I believe MOST - are doing what they LOVE to do, or trying many different projects to see what they think they might like to do. They are using this time to explore, plan, collaborate, create, make decisions, write, read, fail, and share.

Compare your students to adults you know. Some are very motivated self-starters. Others... are not. Some know what they want to do in life, and some are still struggling - big time. Some have the "go get 'em" attitude, and others don't mind sitting on their fannies and letting life come to them.

I will NOT give up on students who, during Genius Hour, act apathetic. These are often students who act the same way in "regular" lessons, but sometimes not. Sometimes these students just don't know what to do, and have a difficult time making decisions. I will not give up, because I believe it is our role to keep encouraging, keep challenging, keep modeling what perseverance looks like, if nothing else. If they learn one lesson from this struggle, it is that when I believe in something, I believe in in whole-heartedly. I believe if young people become self-directed learners and know HOW to learn, they can have the world in the palm of their hands.
There will also be people who cannot stand the happy mascot, and others who LOVE him (her)!


  1. I NEEDED THIS!!!! I NEEDED TO READ THIS SOOOOO BADLY! I have a few of these... I don't want to admit it, but I do. One of my students, a junior, skids through everything by the skin of his teeth. There is very little effort in anything he does. I was really surprised that Genius Hour was the same way with him. I have a sophomore who is very intelligent, and I really thought Genius Hour was going to be something that he couldn't wait to get his hands on.... nope!!! I was so excited, so I figured my students were going to be just as excited!!

    A couple of weeks ago, I read an article that dealt with the 80/20 rule in all aspects of life. In the article, it discussed how 80% of something is much better than 20% of something; yet, we often spend 100% of our time looking at the 20%. Since reading that article, I have been better at looking at the 80% of my students, and placing more focus on that, than thinking I have failed Genius Hour b/c of the 20%. With that being said, the second week of Genius Hour when they still hadn't really done anything, I gave them an alternate assignment. Something just didn't feel right about that though. This past week; however, I visited with them about different ways in which to look at the opportunity presented to them, and even talked with one about his love of falconry...wanting him to look into and research that. Something that was/is so passionate to him, he still didn't want to have anything to do with during Genius Hour.....so.... what did I do? Well, I let him sit there in his own thoughts, while I put my focus on the amazing projects of the rest of the class. Each time I would walk by him, I would smile, put my hand on his shoulder, etc. Just to let him know that I hadn't forgotten about him. I even had him run a couple of errands for me, and volunteered to have him help another student with her video documentary. I don't know if that is the right thing to do.... I'm flying by the seat of my own pants, as this is the first time that I have ever done Genius Hour.

    I have students that are much more into it that others.... and I have some that are so excited, so involved, and are having the best time of their learning lives. What is difficult for me is giving up control. Truly, just letting them do their own thing and trust in the process. My heart tells me it is the right thing.... that head game sometimes questions what on Earth I am doing...


    1. I like the 80-20 rule. I know it's too easy to focus on the negative. We need to look at the positive while still trying to find that spark with our students who struggle.

  2. My colleague found a site called DoSomething.org that suggests community service projects for kids ages 13-25. As we are running low on time, we suggested to several students that they find something on there. We now have a group of girls making dog toys for shelter dogs, one boy putting up signs around town with hotline info for homeless youth, and one boy organizing a canned food drive and a benefit meal for the homeless. For some kids, being given the structure is helpful--they were overwhelmed by too much choice.
    Also, this year our school is running Genius Hour through Language Arts/Social Studies team partnerships. My coworker and I can talk specifically about OUR students and their struggles. She'll find a way to motivate one kid, then I'll stumble upon the words that light a fire for a different kid. It helps to be doing this with someone!

    1. I know the DoSomething.org site. Thanks for the reminder. Just reading comments like this and Penny's above is a bit more comforting; I don't feel so alone or so wrong in what I'm doing. Thanks again to Joy for starting this conversation.

  3. Thanks for writing this post, Joy. I will definitely look at some of the links you mention above. I think something that I need to remember is that often the "slackers" in Genius Hour are also "slackers" in other parts of the day. Many of them don't know how to initiate projects and, in some cases, don't make a connection between what they're passionate about and a Genius Hour project. I think, in their eyes, school is school and that's never a good thing. I have a student, not in my Genius Hour class, who doesn't want to be in school doing anything after the 3:00 bell. If it's connected to school, then it must be bad. How did it get that way? I need to also focus on the kids who are doing some great projects and who are spending their Genius Hour time productively. Once I can get some things clear in my own mind, I will be blogging about this for sure.

  4. Thanks for posting this! As a newcomer to GH I've read all the great Twitter feeds and FB and Pinterest posts about how great everyone does. I thought it just cannot be this easy. There must be some students who truly struggle with this type of learning. Then I read your blog and saw that it will take some "out of the box" thinking on the teacher's part to guide those struggling students. Every new idea takes time to be accepted...GH is one of those new innovative ideas. It will take time...

  5. HI Joy. Many thanks for this post - which addresses some common issues experienced by teachers who attempt some form of 20% time, genius hour, etc. Some useful advice indeed. You might be interested in my attempt to address similar issues here


    Kath Murdoch

    1. Hello, Kath! I've seen that post of yours - those shoulder shruggers do need more attention. I had this post on the LiveBinder under "Students Who Struggle," but I had it on a different blog that had reposted it (under Inquiry Within blog) - thanks for the original link - I fixed it! We need to keep the discussions going!