My goal for Genius Hour was for students to explore culture. I made a decision to focus on Spanish language proficiency during the first four days of the week, and then allow students to explore culture on the fifth. I felt that the Genius Hour experience would be hindered if I required students with minimal Spanish skill to try and complete their project in Spanish. Thus, the tie-in to my subject was through a focus on culture.
Our Genius Hour experience was primarily split into two parts. During first semester, I tried to promote learning a little about a lot of topics. I gave students a list of 10 categories of cultural topics ranging from Art and Food to Economics and Government. By the end of the semester, students needed 15 blog posts - one in each category plus five on any cultural topic they wanted. I gave them a format for the blog posts that required them to include their resource and a paragraph describing what they learned and why they researched it.
- What worked: students did end up thinking about culture in new ways beyond just food, dance, and music. They were also able to learn things that were unexpected. Overall, they gained an appreciation for many of the similarities and differences that exist between the cultures (including ours). It was also easy to keep track of posts because each student "tagged" their post with the cultural category as well as their name, so I could pull up all of their posts at once to grade.
- What didn't work: STRUCTURE. This year, I learned that I don't really have it, but I really need it. This holds true for all of my teaching, not just Genius Hour. However, Genius Hour was the least structured part of my week, and I really struggled with it. This is a classroom management issue rather than a GH issue. I would particularly warn new teachers that they need to be meticulous and hold many students' hands through the process to ensure their success. My highest students got this right away and took full advantage of it. They were the ones who got the most out of it and enjoyed it the most. My lowest students, on the other hand, just wished I would teach class. Unfortunately, this was a reinforcing idea considering they didn't get out of it what they could have, and so they felt it was a waste of time. My higher students also noticed the lack of actual learning that seemed to prevail in the classroom.
Second semester, student chose one topic and then completed a project about that topic. They had to create something to display about their topic (I purposely left this vague to see what they came up with) and attend a "Genius Hour Fair" where everyone displayed their product and filled out a worksheet about other students' projects. Their final for the year was to turn in a portfolio that included their initial proposal, a 1-page "What is culture?" paper, a 2-page reflection paper about their experience, a Spanish-English dictionary that listed the key terms of their topic in Spanish and English, and an annotated bibliography.
- What worked: Students got really excited about their project. Students who cared about their learning and project really went the extra mile. They also learned a lot about the process of designing and following through with their plan. Before starting their project, students had to present a well through-out proposal. Most of the groups split up early on (usually at the proposal stage) once they realized that working in a group would limit them being able to do their project their way (or they were worried about relying on another person), and many students realized that their plans changed for various reasons (not enough information, not feasible, etc.) It was really cool to see students work these things out themselves and then simply come to me for approval for their changes. In the end, I had a number of amazing projects - students built websites (I showed students with digital projects how to create a QR code for their display and then scan other codes to see items on their devices), sewed clothes, built models, and cooked food, and learned to dance among other things. For these students, the experience really paid off. In fact, a number of my "lower" students had the chance to shine when they brought their projects in - there were a few that all the students were talking about and they had no idea that that particular student could do the things they did! Parents and students alike seemed very impressed at the Genius Hour fair - Most students put at least satisfactory effort into their projects (though it was obvious many of them slapped a poster together the night before). However, there were clearly students who turned their "wow" factor on with paintings and displays that went well beyond anything I knew these students could do. Many students and parents commented on how this experience gave them some unique opportunities with their kids. For example, more than one Mom commented on how much fun it was to cook with their kids (students were required to work with a "mentor", defined as someone who knew more about their topic than they did) and that their family now had new recipes they ate on a regular basis.
- What didn't work: Again, the issue of structure came in. There were a number of students who just couldn't get the ball rolling with an idea and wasted a lot of time. The issues from first semester rolled over into second semester and resulted in sub-par experiences for my students (and me). However, I would say that second semester was much more successful than first semester and students got more involved in their projects, including my "low" ones.