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.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Let It Go

What are our issues with giving students control in classes?
Why do we have a difficult time letting go of control?
“There is no time to cover the curriculum I’m supposed to cover.”
“They won’t get enough preparation for the standardized tests.”
“Other teachers will walk by the room and think I’m crazy.”

It's time to get over it.

We are here to teach CHILDREN first.

If you say you want your students to be creative and prepared for the world ahead of them, you need to give up your control - at least for part of your school year! Our students need to be adaptable, flexible, creative, innovative and leaders. They can NOT practice these skills unless we give them the time. Allowing time during your class for students to pursue their own passions does get loud, confusing, and it just might be your most difficult and rewarding part of your week.

IMG_3733.JPGGenius Hour, 20% Time, Innovation Day, Passion Projects… By any name, this is student-driven learning. Your job is to give students the map so that they can create their own journey, with u-turns and break-downs along the way. They may fail, but we'll be there to help them reflect on wrong turns and show ways to get back on the right path.

Why should we “give up” part of the day or week to let students learn or create what they want? If you can’t answer, then try this question: What do you remember about your elementary and high school years? We remember the teachers who were nice, and those that were not. But really, what specific curriculum do you remember? And could you find that curriculum by Googling questions now? Did you ever get a chance to do what YOU wanted in school? We remember those things that are personal to us - those times we were truly engaged in the learning, because we were allowed some choice. Kids are naturally curious - they DO want to learn - but they probably want to learn many things that are not in our curriculum.

I used to think it was all about the CHOICE students are given, and that’s a HUGE part of it. With more choice, they are more motivated to learn… but there is more.

Tech Help.JPGThe shift to Common Core invites creativity, freedom, deeper thinking and understanding. The only way for more of this to happen in schools is for teachers to give up the control. I want a student-centered classroom - one where my students learn how to become lifelong learners - how to seek out experts and ask the questions that will get them further along in their exploration… how to pursue answers, rather than memorize facts.

During Genius Hour, students have to first find their passion. This shouldn’t be difficult, but it is so very difficult for some, because we have beat that curiosity out of them. School has become a place (in some instances) where we don’t have time to find out what students like - we have too much we need to teach them! WE tell them what WE think they need to know. They get used to years of this, and by the time they reach us, they don’t know how to be curious anymore - they lose some of the urge to share what they know with us. In fact, some of the students that have the hardest time during genius hour are the ones who have learned to play the school game well. Your “straight A” students will have a difficult time without rubrics, deadlines, and the openness of this year-long project. They want to be told what to do. This won't work in the world in which they're heading.

For these students, you may have to scaffold their learning. It begins with a conversation. There are many questions you can ask students to lead them to ideas. First, you’ll need to generate ideas for their passion. You can ask a multitude of questions (list here) in your one-on-one conference. You can also, as AJ Juliani suggested in this blog post, ask students to create a “March Madness Interests” bracket. Once students find something they’d like to do, it’s time for them to set their own parameters. If they need a deadline, have them come up with it. They could create a calendar with dates on it when they’d like to be done with certain parts of their project, and select a date in which to present. If they want to be graded, they should be tasked with creating the rubric, and given parameters with which to do so. If they will be doing more than one project for the year, they may find it easier to begin in this fashion, with rubrics and deadlines becoming unnecessary for their next projects. What you should do, to make it easier on all of your students, is come up with steps to follow. It can be as simple as “Brainstorm ideas, research, and present,” or as complex as you’d like (depending on what you’re willing to manage).

Benefits for students: They take ownership of their learning. The develop social skills. They learn how to work smarter at solving problems. They become better at asking questions. They develop a more trusting relationship with you, which hopefully spreads to other adults. They have increased motivation to come to your class. They are more engaged during class, which leads to learning.

Benefits for teachers: Having time built into your week when you can sit down with kids individually helps them feel valued, and it will also help you. You will learn what makes them tick. You will learn what type of learner they are. You will learn what they are skilled at, and what they wish they knew. You will learn about their life outside of school. You can use all of this information during the rest of your week - and your students will, too. It’s suddenly all about the students, the way it should be - they’ll trust you because you know them. You’ll show them you trust that they can make decisions for the class.
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All of your lessons will revolve around your students - their skills and their needs. And isn’t THAT what it’s all about?

So… How do teachers pull this off? I recently wrote a post about decisions you’ll have to make - it may look daunting, but it will be one of those decisions you won’t regret.

Students' ideas will provoke change in your classroom & in your thinking!*

*Disclaimer: Be ready to be the loudest and most engaged class in your hallway…


  1. Thanks for your words of wisdom! I recently started to incorporate Genius Hour into my classes, and once I let go of my control, so many great things were able to happen. Helping students find their passions in life is an amazing thing to be a part of. Awesome thoughts!

  2. You have a lot of food for thought in this blog. I also teach English, so I am on a quest to find out how it works in other English classrooms. My biggest concern is how much curriculum we are already required to cover, but I think I'm ready to incorporate 20% time in my classes next year at least. I'm trying to lay some groundwork with digital citizenship right now; but, of course, I won't have the same students next year. I particularly like the idea of the "March Madness" bracket you mentioned.

  3. I am one of those teachers who struggles to let students have control in the classroom. I don't think I'm ready yet to start a Genius Hour into my classroom yet, but I'm warming up to the idea. I agree with you that in education we spend so much time telling the students what we (or the curriculum) thinks is important that we do stifle students desire to learn. If Genius Hour is one way to bring back come of the students curiosity, then it might be something I should try.

  4. I have never heard the concept 'genius hour.' Thanks for the post - I'm off to read more about how/why of this.