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5 Genius Hour Tips

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May 14, 2017

I will admit it. Genius Hour intimidated me; this so-called “20% time” where students work on passion projects. Although my pedagogy is driven by play—often including immersive games and meaningful projects—the concept seemed overwhelming. For those unfamiliar, genius hour takes place in the corporate sector, from Google to 3M to Colgate-Palmolive. At these companies, employees get 20% of the day to pursue projects of interest. As a result, employees may be more engaged. And they also tend to innovate. Post-Its and Gmail came from these creative policies.

But how does this look in a classroom? Fortunately, I had the somewhat unique experience of observing a master teacher at work. Not just any expert—Steve Isaacs—PBS Digital Innovator from New Jersey. Isaacs happened to be one of my dissertation participants in Fall of 2015, and I observed his students on “20% Tuesday.” I saw how engaged his students were designing, creating, and publishing games and digital media. In fact, many asked to eat lunch in his room!

Dipping my Toes in 20% Time

Inspired, I dove into this school year and launched 20% Wednesdays in my 7th grade social studies classes. Steve was generous to give me some pointers, sharing a Google doc he uses with students. As it turns out, using Google Classroom was helpful to personalize learning. I recommend this resource, or a similar platform like Edmodo or Schoology.

Taking what they learned, each student proposed and designed a project. What’s more, everyone helped write the rubric, with help from Google Classroom’s “make a copy for each student” feature! We repeated 20% Time this January, themed on the immigrant experience. And the year will conclude with students pursuing topics not typically covered in middle school, like World War II or the Kennedy Administration. 

5 Tips I learned from 20% Time with my students:

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask other teachers for advice.
    Just because you may be the only teacher in your school to try 20% Time doesn’t mean you need to go at it alone. Seek out other likeminded teachers here in the PBS Digital Innovator community, or on Twitter.
  2. Give students a theme or essential question, and then a choice of technology tools.
    View the standards as a design challenge. Or, parse out themes from standards like literary devices, math concepts, or even larger essential questions and enduring understandings. Then, have students propose projects based on these choices.
  3. Encourage public-facing product. 
    A good rule of thumb is to refer to the Buck Institute of Education’s 8 Elements of Project-Based Learning, an essential element of which is creating a product that can be offered to people outside of the classroom. I also highly recommend viewing the documentary, Most Likely to Succeed, and reading the book. These resources detail the teaching at High Tech High, a school driven by authentic, project-based learning. Students’ work far surpassed their usual assignments. (In fact, I recommend try to stop using teacher-directed words, like “assignment” or “task.”)
  4. Use a digital management system, like Google Forms and Classroom, or similar.
    As mentioned earlier, I relied on Google Classroom. I assessed each day using a Google Form survey, and students tracked their learning on a Google Doc. I also created a spreadsheet with each particular project; after all, each student worked at a different pace.
  5. Use of Reflections-on-Action Prompts.
    Students were required to answer reflection questions based on their actions each week. They considered where they were in the project, and what short-term and long-term plans needed to be in place. 

Exemplar Achievements

Most importantly, 20% Time was fun! My students took project-based learning to the next level. A few made board games using a 3D printer for the pieces. Others used Do Ink’s green screen app to record videos. One of my students created a playable, electoral college-themed Minecraft adventure map. Rather than showing the class, he submitted it to a Minecraft forum. Three girls authored a 7,200 word Hunger Games/Harry Potter mash-up skit, which they published on fanfiction.net. And one girl put her project on GoFundMe. Then, she used the crowdfunded money to outsource children’s book illustrations from an artist in Indonesia, using the website Fiverr (it costs $5 per “gig.”). Her final product was a children’s book for Kindle, published on Smashwords. And hers wasn’t the only book! Two other students published books, also viewable on Smashwords here and here.

For your classroom, check out the free resources on Games for Change Student Challenge page on climate change, future communities, and immigrant voices. They include research for students and prompts to use for your class’ 20% Time. Soon enough, you will see a classroom of engaged students, self-directed in the pursuit of learning.

Are you using 20% time in your classroom? What have your students created? 

Matthew Farber, Ed.D. teaches social studies at Valleyview Middle School, in Denville, New Jersey. Dr. Farber is an Edutopia blogger and cohost of Ed Got Game, on the BAM! Radio Network, and is a BrainPOP Certified Educator. He was a recipient of a Geraldine R. Dodge Teacher Fellowship and a Woodrow Wilson HistoryQuest Fellowship. Look for the new, expanded edition of his book, Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning — Revised Edition (Peter Lang Publishing, 2017). To learn more, please visit matthewfarber.com.

Matthew Farber, Ed. D.

Matthew Farber, Ed. D. Middle School Social Studies Teacher

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