Genius Hour with Second Graders

Genius Hour with Second Graders

Genius Hour? Yeah, I could do that with my second graders.

There are few projects that truly changed the culture of my classroom–this is one of them. Both 20timeineducation.com and geniushour.com provide a quick primer on Genius Hour, aka 20 Time, aka 20% Time, aka FedEx Days. All right, I’m assuming you know about what Genius Hour is know. I found that this project is one of the rare moments in school where students are given choice in curriculum. In my class, students were free to choose any topic, and they were able to share what they learned in a variety of ways.

After talking with Kate Petty about 20% Time in her high school english class, I decided to give it a try with second graders. Despite several failures and rocky lessons along the way, my class found their groove with the following workflow:

Week 1: Choose a topic. Research it.
Week 2: Finish research. Organize notes.
Week 3: Create a poster or Google Presentation (or something).
Week 4: Present your project.

We spent one hour every Wednesday afternoon on Genius Hour projects. Students worked in pairs, and chose a topic together. The goal was to decide on a topic (horses, how to become a vet, how to spawn Herobrine (Minecraft was quite popular) and deliver a presentation four weeks later, totaling four hours of work. The following month would be new pairs, new topics, and new presentations.

I learned pretty quickly, though, that Genius Hour needs flexibility. I started off trying to stick to this exact schedule (4 weeks fit nicely into a month), but realized that this particular style of project takes on a life of its own. I’m not sure if it was a rainy day, a more challenging topic, or if pizza for lunch was to blame, but some rounds took two or three weeks. So, sometimes we would spend four weeks on a topic/project and sometimes we would spend seven weeks.

It took a while to figure out the pacing on this with second graders. The first time I tried this, we did all four steps in one afternoon. I don’t recommend that–it did not go well. Another mistake was using Google Slides for presentations. My classroom was typically 10:1, which meant students could only work on their slides when we had a laptop cart or when we were in the computer lab. Another bad idea was forcing buddies. Students could choose their partner, and could choose to work alone. I encouraged collaboration, but didn’t force it.

I made a few tweaks to Genius Hour to better fit second graders. These projects were more successful when students worked in pairs. I thought 100% autonomy would provide more engagement, but found that students got stuck during the research phase when working alone. I also fond that one month seems to be the Goldilocks length for second graders. Flexibility is essential, but seven weeks seemed to be too long for a seven year old to stay passionate on a topic with the intensity I wanted.

Students were engaged in projects like I’d never seen before. We know that student choice and autonomy make a huge difference in learning, but I felt the difference in my classroom when students were working on their Genius Hour projects. The desire to learn outweighed barriers. There was no leveled reading when researching–my struggling reader (1.2) learned how a car engine works on his own. At that point, students owned their learning. They didn’t need me to learn something; they just needed an environment that provided support and focus.

In my new position as Director of Technology, our senior admin team is talking about bringing the tenets of Genius Hour into faculty learning. Following Google’s model of 20% time, we’re trying to figure out how to give teachers time during the day to work on projects they are passionate about. I’m excited to see how we can create space for all learners–elementary students, high school students, and teachers–to follow their passions and share their learning with others. If you’re doing Genius Hour with your students or with your teachers, I’d love to hear about it.




EdFailFwdAfter a four year hiatus, I am teaching second grade again. The school year is wrapping up, and I can’t help but compare this school year to when I taught second grade four years ago. Four years. That doesn’t sound so long, unless you think about the technology from four years ago. If I wanted to share pictures in 2009, I had to connect my camera to my computer, wait 10 minutes, upload them, connect my laptop to the LCD projector, and show them to my students. There was no AirPlay. There was no iPad. Four years later, the possibilities for innovation in second grade are endless.

I started this school year with conservative projects: successful, easy to complete, safe. That was a problem for me–safety does not equal innovation, and I am only satisfied as a teacher when I am working towards creating a more innovative classroom.

We need to be taking more risks in the classroom if we want innovative ideas to be transformative. Inherent with risks are failures, but so are amazing successes. And I want my second graders to experience amazing successes. So, I started taking more risks with my lessons. We wrote a song about Class Dojo in GarageBand, and then decided to shoot a music video using only an iPad. I had never shot original footage with elementary students, but the story they wrote required us to film (and not use footage from Discovery Education). So we filmed. And it was eduawesome!

Fueled with enthusiasm and confidence, we jumped into the next project–Minecraft in the classroom. My students love Minecraft, and I even found MinecraftEdu. Surely that would lead to success. I bought Minecraft on my two iPads and two laptops and wrote a lesson plan to teach subtraction in the world of Minecraft.

It. Did. Not. Work. At all. I learned pretty quickly that iPads and laptops can’t play together. Oops. Then, I learned that students like to crowd around iPad screens, even if I’m mirroring a screen on an HDTV. Oops. Then, I learned that students like to watch, but don’t like to solve subtraction problems on paper. Oops.

That’s three “oops”es, if you’re keeping score.

I learned that it was ok to say oops. The world did not end. I did not get reprimanded. (My principal even came in during that train wreck lesson and commented on the innovation of using iPads to teach math. Apparently it looked good!) I did not waste class time. It was all ok.

After a few not-so-good lessons, I figured out how to better leverage Minecraft during math lessons. We created arrays (4×3 grids, 2×6 grids, etc.) in both Minecraft and on paper. We solve problems together, and viewed them in two drastically different worlds. My students have a solid understanding of arrays now, even when it’s only pencil and paper.

I learned two big lessons.

First, if you walked into my classroom today and saw my students solving math problems in Minecraft, you’d be blown away. I must admit, it’s pretty stinkin cool. However, it did NOT start out impressive. Heck, even the middle part of the Minecraft Math project wasn’t very good. There were several really bad lessons where very little math happened. And I didn’t share that… until now. A problem with blogs is that educators tend to share only their very best ideas. We simply don’t share stumblings and failures.

If you’re just learning about a new project/workflow/tool/app, you probably won’t use it in your classroom. There is pressure as a teacher to be 100% successful. And that’s a huge problem if the goal is to be innovative.

The second thing I learned along the way is that modeling failure with students is important. Rushton Hurley talks about how you, the teacher, may be the only graceful example of failure your students will ever see. When something doesn’t work, what do you do? You can choose to get flustered or angry, or you can acknowledge it, and move forward. If you frame failures this way, it’s a win/win. Right? If a new idea doesn’t work, you’re modeling graceful failure and striving for epicness. If a new idea does work, then you’re stoked!

So for my part, I will take more risks in my classroom, striving to create a more innovative classroom. I’ll blog about lessons that almost worked, and share ideas that failed.

You can join me on the internets by using the new, freshly unboxed hashtag #edfailfwd. It even has an #edufancy logo, created by the illustrious Victoria Olson.

Let’s take some risks together in hopes of truly becoming innovative.


Note: Here is the logo in various formats. Feel free to use, share, and distribute.