Genius Hour and Student Voice


When thinking about a learner focussed classroom, the activity called Genius Hour is frequently mentioned. Genius Hour encapsulates a way to begin individualizing our student’s learning, and to do so in a project type of environment.

What is Genius Hour?

As we know, there are many ways to be innovative in solving problems in the world. Many companies have realized that as their employees have been given responsibilities for their positions their total skills, abilities, and interests are not always part of their job. The same is true for our students in which we have a set of lessons and activities that we ask them to do and yet there always seems to be those students who appear to have interests that they are passionate about that can’t seem to be incorporated into the day to day work. To solve this problem, companies such as Google, created what they called the 20% time policy. This policy allowed employees to devote 20% of their work day to projects that the employee would most benefit Google. Shifting this concept over to education the idea becomes one in which the student is allowed to work on something they are passionate about that would most benefit their own learning. As A.J. Juliana points out:

“Genius Hour is a time given to students in classrooms around the world to work on inquiry-driven and passion-based projects that are built on intrinsic motivation.”

During the projects students explore their creativity, develop habits for learning, and gain experiences that connect directly to fostering growth mindsets. The best projects also incorporate ways to improve or help the lives of others in the world.

You will see Genius Hour referred to as the 20% project time, passion project, mastery hour, wonder workshop, and innovation hour.

What are some key classroom management needs?

There are many resources to read and glean information as you’ll see below on the Padlet. The key to having a successful Genius Hour in the classroom is to:

  1. Begin by connecting students to their passion, or what they want to learn about.
  2. Have a clear essential question that requires students to research, process, and filter information to gain an understanding in their topic.
  3. Set clear milestones or goals along the way. Students should understand the sequence of steps to follow.
  4. Have a shared classroom tool for students to reflect on what they are learning during each step of their journey and what they will do next.
  5. Give students time at the end to create a presentation of what they learned and what they did.

Here’s a Padlet with links to get started and learn more about Genius Hour.

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Here’s a Genius Hour Hyperdoc presentation for students to get them started and keep track of their project..

Paul Solarz, author of Learn like a Pirate has several posts, here and here on getting started with Genius Hour.

CUSD 5th grade teacher Alyssa Gularte has had her students doing Genius Hour for several years. Here are some examples from her students’ 2016 and 2017 blogs.

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Identity and Branding as Reflected in Student User Names and Avatars

As I wrote my previous post about identity I realized that the idea of identity as meme or brand was on the margins of what I was thinking about? When do we begin addressing some of these further important ways to represent self or construct our self to students? Isn’t this a foundational concept in the importance of literacy and digital citizenship?

In flogging that dead horse of needed 21st century skills, the familiar concept of preparing student’s for the workplace, I would think that branding would be critical from the stand point that as a person moves through all the career positions and companies they work for then their identity will be less and less vested with who they work for and more with themselves. But when I read articles professing the critical importance of branding

and even a magazine devoted to the topic, I’m a little bothered and concerned for what we might potentially be teaching our students. And yet, we are in a global economy right, what implications does that have if the competition to succeed is that much more difficult. What are we to make of the concept of branding and identity when students so commonly and purposely use misinformation for their identity?

At the same time I was wondering which of Mike Ribble’s  nine themes of digital citizenship covered the concept of digital identity and branding. I could see the concept fitting into several areas but most involved treatment of others. It seems the idea of digital identity is more for the treatment the external self and conditioning the perception of others.
brand-called-you-cover.jpg (JPEG Image, 476x600 pixels) - Scaled (85%) by you.
Jeff Utecht also had also been reflecting on branding and identity and raised some thoughtful questions as well as practical thoughts about when to introduce the concept and how to use these ideas in the classroom. As he points out, Clarence Fisher has worked on creating a classroom identity with his Thin Wall blog that students work under, and this is probably I think the best way to help the students internalize the ideas of team work, collaboration, and cooperation. I came away from the article though  with realizing that a student’s branding or identity will need to change over time. And while It is interesting as two of his colleagues did to create an identity for their children, digital identity for me involves the freedom to explore how other’s perceive one’s identity differently than what a parent chooses for you at birth.

When I think of identity and playing with identity in the past before computers I first think of artists and fashion designers, and those who had to meet the demands of their patrons and pursue their creative focus while satisfying the censorship waiting for anyone who dared not represent the world as the church deemed appropriate.

Perhaps the first modern artist that I am aware of to play with identity in the photographic medium is Marcel Duchamp who created the pseudonym Rose Selavy and placed “her” image on perfume bottles and used the name as attribution for several of his art works. Later in the 20th century I think what our student today would like to do is similar to the work of Cindy Sherman and her series of pictures in which she appears as vastly different persona. While our students may not go so far in creating their identity, I’m still struck by Dana Boyd’s words,”that social network profiles are where youth write themselves into being.

I think there is a natural tendency to play with the concept of identity and branding as it is the synthetic other that people around us see. Do we choose to idealize or modify our identity and brand for what we would like to be? What do we do with students who want to use frightening user names or identities? Last year one of my sixth graders used the user name “evilpsycho2” and the other students knew he wasn’t and were’nt uncomfortable with him using it. I wasn’t so comfortable but at the same time I couldn’t in my mind jusitfy forcing him to change it because I also knew him and had also set up the use of user names as an opportunity for the students to play with and have the freedom to come up with their own.

Today as students create content for others beyond the walls of the classroom we see that identity and brand are becoming more important as the number of people they reach with their content grows as well. I wonder what kind of effect this sizable audience will have on young students. We discuss all the time the importance of an authentic audience and authentic projects for our students but not how large the exposure should be.

From a practical standpoint I always tell my student to try and find something that represents them, but what if they want to do the opposite?

This year I had my students use three avatar creators to represent themselves. I gave each an assigned user name which incorporated which section they were in and a number. I told the students that they were to plan on keeping these identities for most of the school year. Last year when I gave the students the option of creating their own user names it seemed appropriate for sixth graders, but then I had students changing their user names repeatedly and it was difficult to keep track of. Several students also repeatedly changed the icon or avatar to represent themselves and also used copyrighted images and objects which didn’t really relate to themselves other than they thought the image was “cool.”

So this year I spent more time with the fourth graders helping them brainstorm and reflect on what they wanted.

I let them choose from one of three avatar creators:
Build Your Wild Self
Skype’s Wee World
Become an M&M Character

student avatars one by you.

I then created a screencast using Jing showing the students how to capture their avatar using Skitch and then to upload them to our classroom Flickr page.

As you can see most of the students chose Skype’s wee world characters but a few did use the other avatar creators. Later I also created a screencast showing how to upload the image to our Class Blogmeister account.

So where do I stand on all this, my primary concern is for my student’s safety and awareness of the danger’s inherent in revealing too much personal information and their responsibilities as digital citizens, but at some point in a student’s learning it seems this push to hold back and blur the true identity must begin shifting towards posting an identity that draws people to them, something that appears trustworthy and holds value.

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What does Digital Identity mean for the Classroom?

A couple weeks ago at the CR 2.0 meet up in Sacramento we were talking about using social networks and how to set up accounts and use them. The discussion shifted to how to create an identity and I realized that there is a schism happening between teachers as adults and our students and how they create identities at least on social networks. Having read Dana Boyd‘s recent “crib notes” on a presentation at Penn State, there is an interesting difference between teens in writing their identity versus adults. Teens consider their digital identity most important, however they are prone to purposeful misinformation in how they present themselves because they expect their friends to understand the humor in what they are writing.

Teachers on the other hand can be such a serious lot and our perception of what we should write about and create for our identities is different. If you asked an adult what was most important they might propose that their “real world” identity was most important and informs or constructs their digital identity. So on the one hand teens think the digital identity is most important but not being factual acceptable. While adults who may value their real world identity as more important place greater importance on factual truth or to be as close to the perceived reality of themselves as possible. I’ve come to realize that for many of my virtual relationships since I have never met these people F to F that this is all we have to go by. The different roles we play and the relationships we form are based on ever changing roles and responsibilities. There is no possible way of anticipating and writing identities that will be permanent and inclusive of all we are. This problem can be especially problematic if expectations and perceptions do not meet the reality of the person or we mismatch our involvement with others beyond what we should such as was shared by Jen Wagner.

Bud Hunt was tweeting about questions and ideas about creating identity and I realized that we may continue to struggle with our expectations of what our identities should look like when teens or students don’t approach constructing identity in the same manner.

And then Will Richardson responded:

Of course the question is can we teach what we perceive so differently than our students?

Do we begin helping the students think about digital identity and try to change their approach to identity?

I realized the question is more complex once the idea of “writing” as a part of creating identity is taken into consideration. Writing can now take the form of the squence of pictures that are posted on Flickr, the series of videos uploaded onto youtube, and writing is now really an act of the creation of content, the juxtoposition of a sequence of media either text or images. I’ve been creating content for years, some content is still available some content has been erased or destroyed. I have placed my identity in the hands of different Web 2.0 companies and the servers they run. I also have content that sits on my computer or is stored on hard drives but it is no longer formated to be “readable” by others. For that I need the help of others. And do other’s include my PLN, professional organizations that I participate in? In Second Life how does the lines of code that give shape and form to my appearance affect my identity? So how much do I really control my digital identity?

Perhaps our students and teens have it right as I really wonder how much I do determine my digital identity. Should we worry about the veracity of what we try to represent ourselves as because after all we don’t really control much of what formats and frames our identity. The shifting of what others see as our identity seems to me like quicksand that we’ve risen above with some constructed identity that slowly sinks over time to be dredged up only by someone seriously interested in exhuming one’s past. I can post as much contructed information as I want but to me the Google search is still the most telling representative of my identity. If I search on Google for myself, much of the content is based on recent chronological events or on what has been most examined by others. But in my instance no matter now much I’ve worked, the music databases that have been created push my actions of twenty five years ago when I played a minor role in independent music circles to be intertwined with the past few years with my identity as a teacher. How much choice or control do I really have in creating my digital identity?

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Powerpoint and Levels of Comfort

Scott Meech had posted a question on whether an assignment was good or not: – Technology in Education isn’t the Future… It is the Present!: Is this a Good Assignment via kwout

I think it touches on some many issues that have to be taken apart layer by layer as to why this is a good or bad assignment. First when I look at just using PowerPoint, I sort of feel uncomfortable and want to ask the teacher why they are necessarily using it? Howard Tufte has written an essay and also posted an excerpt and article in Wired on the problems of professionally using PowerPoint as a way of presenting information. I don’t think this is completely relevant for education, but it does get at the issue of depth of ideas versus something which is visually appealing. Second, the teacher has instructed the students to access the visual candy of what the software can do. Is there a reason to use backgrounds or designs, none that the assignment makes clear. However the teacher may look upon Powerpoint as a computer generated version of a poster or Kidpix, its not clear. Also, there are no instructions on how the presentation is going to be used, will it be used as support for an oral presentation or is it meant for someone to look at and read later on, why else to necessarily include web links?

This vagueness of specific details moves the question on whether the assignment is good or bad to then be based on us the reader. We have to fill in and determine whether the teacher was going to use rubrics, or what sort of organizers or organization might be given. I feel as if the assignment is being given by a teacher that is not comfortable with using these tools or hasn’t had the professional development necessary to see the use of power point as nothing more than a continuation on the traditional way to present. Not only that, but it looks as if each student is responsible for their own presentation so there is no incorporation of peer to peer learning in the project. We don’t know what sort of interacting the students themselves will do.

Can we blame a teacher for doing something wrong because they still give these sorts of assignments in Powerpoint? Several years ago I remember that there was a great push to teach students how to use Powerpoint to help them begin using computers in the classroom. Powerpoint was presented as “the” multimedia tool to bring in Quicktime videos, photographs, and even sounds. The tool always came across as a one stop solution for teaching computers skill and for the teacher to organize their ideas and since almost all presentations that a teacher would see in their district were done using Powerpoint, then it was natural for a teacher who was thinking about what a student might need as even a skill in the workplace to feel a need to teach it.

Unfortunately, the style of teaching and presenting which uses Powerpoint has fallen out of favor, but unless a teacher has gone to a conference in which the presenters have become more like facilitators and modified how their information was presented, then even a teacher today could probably argue that within their experience there is still a value to be placed on teaching using Powerpoint. My middle school even last year was making sure that each teacher had their presentation station with projector and computer, again an extension of the overhead and teacher directed instruction. Several teachers were still putting great effort into their Powerpoint presentations for students as the school year started and during the year.

So, who is to blame for this type of assignment still being given? If the teacher has given up on learning, no longer attends conferences, pulls the same lesson off the shelf year after year and doesn’t take advantage of new research or discussions on how the classroom of today should look. Then a great deal of the blame goes on the teacher. In that case it doesn’t matter what sort of professional development is offered or how new ideas are presented during learning days or ideas sent out from district offices to schools by directors of instruction or technology. However, if a teacher who is engaged with their community and is always trying to find new ideas or websites and dialogs with other teachers about what they are doing in the classroom and feels comfortable giving this type of Powerpoint assignment then I say a great deal of the responsibility lies with the administration of the district and those who help shape what the teacher are doing in their district. Is this then one of those teachers who is primed to be plugged into the global community. I wonder how many teachers are at this point in their teaching?

But one difference today versus a short while ago is that even the mainstream sources of information a teacher might be exposed are being altered. If we look at Alec Couros widely used Typical Networked Teacher than even that teacher is getting exposed to alternative uses of media.TypicalTeacherNetwork by courosa.
Almost all popular media outlets have podcasts and use social networking resources such as Twitter and Facebook to share ideas. The teacher of today who still refuses to acknowledge that the education landscape has not changed and isn’t required to change because they don’t see any difference in the media around them is putting their head in the sand. So a teacher using Powerpoint today may be a teacher ready to join the global community or it could be a teacher in which Powerpoint is now that dusty lesson on the shelf that they continue to pull every year.

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I wish this were a teaching staff from one school.

Miguel McLaughlin from the blog Around the Corner had a very fun and relaxed Skype conversation with several teachers at various levels within the K12 spectrum. It reminds me of what an ideal staff meeting might be like if the energy and excitement that I connect to around the world were contained in one school. For several of the participants there is the same excitement versus slow change that many teachers feel.

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I’m learning to Moodle

After giving it some thought I’ve decided to set up a Moodle for the teachers I team with. I’ve had such difficulties getMoodlelogo_2ting across the importance of using the read/write web tools into the staff that maybe just beginning to build a centralized learning community on line will be a good first step. This is certainly a detour from using all the various learning tools online in a loose and fluid manner, but just building connections and seeing practical applications of lessons and organization would be a good place to start. So far I’ve been intrigued with the thought of how this tool integrates the philosophy of constructionism and constructivism in a virtual environment.

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The Podcasts are Coming.

I was beginning to focus on how I was going to organize my class to create podcasts, when one of my students asked for a "closing circle" which is a meeting at the end of the day in which a student has something that is important to discuss. The student wanted to bring up the idea of starting a podcasting company. Other students chimed in their interest, and so a company was born. I’ve been working diligently to create a bureaucracy (Kafka would be proud) in order to have an interaction and dependency between departments.

The Pod Groups

pres-pods.jpg There are pods which will function as part of the process of producing the podcast. Each group will be composed of five students. I had the students write their preference and tried to honor it as much as possible. The groups will oversee a Flickr pro account, del.ic.ious account, GarageBand, and the blog at BlogMeister. I of course am the president although truth be told it was the students who decided on this. The Geek Pod will oversee the use of the technology and the Biblio Pod will monitor the use of tags and the written portion of the podcast. They will also help with the choosing of grammar problems for minilessons. I was thinking that each of the podcast groups which I will discuss in the next section will be required to submit two grammar/parts of speech issues that they had difficulty solving to the Biblio Group.  Each group will have forms which I intend on creating from screen grabs of the interfaces from the respective program or internet apps. that the students will fill out by hand.


The Podcast Groups

The second organizational structure will involve the content. The students will be in groups of at least four with two groups of three. The class brainstormed ideas that made sense to report on and we also listened to Bob Sprankle’s classe’s podcast to hear an example. The content will be fairly open so that even if the podcast group is say math, the students can choose to report on topics outside of what they are studying.

The importance of Student Centered Learning.

I tried as much as possible to allow the student to be involved in all aspects of production. But because these are fourth and fifth graders I wanted them to use the social aspects of the tools and take on the technical elements which can be done by an individual, myself. The part of the process that I am doing myself may change later when the students are ready. At that point they would need to learn the conversion of the Garageband file into an MP4 file, the addition of chapters using the Chapter tool that I’ve found easy to use, the uploading of the file to Ourmedia although I’m growing impatient with the slow uploads and access, and finally the html needed to link the file in BlogMeister.

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What have I been doing?

I can’t believe I haven’t posted anything since August. In making the transition to a new school and trying to "pilot" all the tools I was studying and learning about since last spring, the use of this space has dropped to a lower part of my priorities. The BlogMeister web log with my new students has taken up my free time. I don’t mean writing my own articles but getting through the the thirty to forty minutes worth of reading of my student’s writings per day. I can’t say I mind. The web log has taken root and like a tree I’ve tried to nurture it by as quickly as possible posting the student’s writings and comments. Many of my students still haven’t internalized the skills and need to proofread and edit carefully their own writing.

The Whys and the Hows

I haven’t written in several days, and its not that there isn’t anything interesting happening in the blogging/internet sphere. I’m just focussed on my classroom which will have students in 4 days. Of the many thoughts floating about in my head, many involve my implementation of technology. Am I just implementing something for the sake of itself rather than looking first at the state standards and then proceeding to the tools? I think I am at that point, having taught for 5 years, that while I have not completely internalized the standards completely, I have a general recollection of them whenever I design a new lesson. I think the technology tools are for me personally motivational, and that enthusiasm carries over into what the kids perceive (just like my excitement about reading and learning). I enjoy the unpredictablility of using these tools and the team work that is required in solving problems that arise. I once had a student who I was helping to use a drawing tool with. I had added a Wacom drawing tablet and she picked up the pen and started trying to draw directly on the monitor and I told her, "yes you are right it should work that way, but you’re way ahead of the people who make computers." This unpreditable aspect of young minds meeting technology is what fascinates me. They were born into a hyperlinked, interactive, multimedia world, "let’s have fun." I don’t want things to be predictable to the point where I don’t get excited, but the problem may be that teachers won’t proceed with a learning tool until they feel a greater mastery. And that’s not going to happen with the rapid evolution of Web 2.0.

Onto more mundane topics, I have been concerned about using BlogMeister, in terms of its limitations for posting media such as pictures and sound, but I think for the pictures I’ll set up a seperate Flickr pro account for my classroom that is separate from my personal pictures. That way if something is accidentally erased or altered I won’t have to worry about it. For podcasts right now I’m leaning towards again creating a classroom account using Ourmedia account, but I may choose something else if I come across an easier to use tool. The pictures that my students use they can do so independently, but the podcast I think I will be more involved with when it comes to posting. I was’nt going to really do that much with podcasts, but I think it will help solve a problem that I’ve always had with process writing, and that is during the editing step the students do not read their paper but instead hand it off to someone else. Podcasts will force them to read aloud and this will help them catch their errors. It always happens that when I conference with a student and ask them to read their paper that they catch many errors that slipped through the process (technology to the rescue).

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Early Reflections on Using Weblogs Next Year

As I only started blogging with my students in the spring of this last year, I’ve begun the process of evaluating and reflecting on what I’ll need to change for next year. I definitely intend on using blogmeister again because for elementary students it has all the features I need and ease of use. Our school is very careful about protecting our students and not allowing pictures or personal information, and with this tool I can maintain these requirements. This last year I just let the kids blog and did a brain storming session to begin with and whole class reflections every few days on what we were doing. My connections between blogging and the language arts standards were tenous since I didn’t really know what to expect and didn’t have clearly defined goals. I was just happy to have the kids posting and commenting on each other’s ideas with out my intervention. Now I really need to think of the standards/goals of what I’m trying to do, and whether I’m going to expand blogging out of the writer’s workshop model into other curriculum areas. Anne Davis has some very useful points to bring up based on her lessons learned and extensive experience with blogging. Will Richardson summarizes a panel discussion at the NECC also on the topic of lessons learned. Within his article he mentions Tim Lauer who brought up a wiki that is very easy to set up called instiki Lauer mentions that a teacher gave each student their own page which would function similar to how a weblog would work, where as I used it more as a bulletin board for an endangered animal project my students were working on and they used the wiki to post questions and assist each other in finding sources and pictures for their reports. I know I’ll be doing literarture circles this year and Anne Davis also has a good starting page to explore ideas on using a weblog to do so.

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