Genius Hour #2 – Oh, So Many Questions!

My students have just completed their second session of Genius Hour. After our first one this past December I was anticipating even better projects and deeper learning. I started them thinking months ago about what they wonder about. I set up a Wonder Wall. we talked, we shared, and I found posts of other students’ projects to inspire the wonderings of my students. But I was met with many blank stares – who knew that finding something they wondered about that is driven by a great question could be so difficult! Too often it was about the doing – “I want to make a pyramid using Mind Craft”, “I want to build an arrow.”, “I want to do jumpshot tricks.” What was lacking was the inquisitive learning. We reviewed great questions, questions that prompted thinking, questions that led to more questions. Finally, after asking students to share their wonderings one night on the class website, the ideas began to flow. One students listed about 20 wonderings which spurred others in their thinking and the wonderings started to build and unfold.

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Having a slow start became, really, a foreshadowing of how the rest of this second Genius Hour went for me. I know, I know, it is not about me, it is about the students, but as educators we hope to build new skills in the learning of our students, we hope to push their thinking to new levels whenever we can and wherever we are. Over 4 Genius Hour sessions students were engaged in their learning; I cannot deny that classroom management issues during these sessions was basically non existent. Some students chose to go it alone while others chose to work with partners that had similar wonderings. There was even one group of three as they discovered their paths were completely aligned and collaboration would benefit each.

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The questions that were asked ranged from what was the evolution and creation of guitars,  how gun powder fires a bullet, and how to create anime using the deviantart website long with many more. (For a complete list of this term’s GH questions visit my class website GH page.) Really, most of the projects had students digging deeper and learning new things. But did it inspire their passions – I don’t feel it did and maybe this is where I am struggling. I have taken the time to really think about what I want from Genius Hour or better yet, what I am hoping for the learning of the students. It is important that students have time to choose their own line of learning but should it not develop their thinking more deeply? I want to help them develop their critical thinking skills so does this mean I need to be more directive with the types of questions they have? But then does this take away from the autonomy of their choices? Does this go back to the control of the teacher? Have other teachers also faced this dilemma when starting out with passion based projects?

Another aspect of this session that really, really bothered me (again I know it is not about me) was that I felt the students had their heads staring at lap top and iPad screens far too IMG_1482much. As my classroom has access to technology on a daily basis and we are a BYOD school (at least in grade 6/7) I am feeling more and more the pull to have students spend some time away from the screens and more on the creative hands-on approach. Research definitely needs to occur, but does this require accessing the computers? Could research mean getting in touch with an expert in their field? The one group of three were looking at why dogs are color blind. I happen to know a dog expert and helped the students set up an interview with her. They were thrilled with this face to face experience and gained so much more than reading the information on-line. I was hoping more students would go in this direction and ask for help with connecting with experts. So I wonder if this should be one of the requirements of their projects – connect with an expert.

I also feel that not enough students are choosing to create or make something. What I mean is that if you want to know how the insides of an Xbox work than taking one apart and discovering connections, wiring, set up are all part of the process. Yes, you can look it up on You tube but isn’t discovery one of the most meaningful ways of learning? There IMG_2917were a variety of students who did create items but did so at home. Arrows were made side by side with a dad, truffle chocolates were made but done at home, not at school. It almost felt like Science Fair rather than Genius Hour. How can I go about adjusting this so more of the discovery happens without parent help/control? Does this matter as they still are working on what they wish to do and are spending quality time with parents? How can I, and should I, expect students to do more of the work at school so that they are not just using their time with me on the lap tops?

There are just so many questions I have before I start the next Genius Hour session. I would love input from those of you who have spent time implementing and developing the learning within Genius Hour in your classrooms. How much do you establish around guidelines of GH projects? Do you ask for a ‘make it’ component and does it need to be done at school? Where have you found inspiration to help students think about their deeper wonderings? These are just the tip of the iceberg for me.

Hearing your stories and ideas may help me find solid ground with which to stand before beginning the third Genius Hour session in my class.

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Jumping into the Deep End

About a year and a half ago I came across an idea that caught my eye and was catching the eye and minds of many educators around the globe – Genius Hour. I was instantly Unknownintrigued by the idea of having students follow their passions within the classroom setting. The research behind this new idea made sense. Of course we are inspired to learn more when we choose what we want to learn about and are following our questions. We also tend to be much more engaged in the learning process.

Sometime in 2012 I was introduced to Gallit Zvi who was working in the same school district as myself. With similar teaching philosophies and personalities we hit it off immediately. As Gallit has been instrumental in orchestrating the sharing of passion based learning I asked her out for coffee where we spent 3 hours talking, sharing, and inspiring each other as educators.

The theory behind Genius Hour made sense, the research behind passion based learningpassion fit nicely into my constructivist views of learning and I set out to learn more and develop a plan for implementation in my classroom. Well, as life happens I just did not get to it. As important as it was to introduce this in my teaching other inquiries kept pulling me away.

But in the spring of 2013 I finally introduced the idea behind Genius Hour with my class. They were extremely excited to give it a go and wondered when we would begin. Normally I am a teacher who does not dip a toe in when trying new things but jumps into the deep end, hoping to stay afloat. For some reason I was hesitant to do this with Genius Hour. I kept wondering how I would start, what would work best for my students, what would it look like in my room? So once again I pushed it off as my uncertainties kept me from diving in (gulp – should I say – the worry about failing!). I had promised my grade 6s, though, that we would start Genius Hour in the fall when they came back to me as grade 7s.

So September arrived, 15 familiar faces walked through our door along with 12 new grade 6s. Getting to know this group, establishing community, working through the bumps of Screen shot 2014-01-13 at 7.55.05 PMSeptember gave me more excuses to push it off. Thankfully I had one student who had been over the moon excited in the spring time about doing Genius Hour. He asked me on numerous occasions when we would get started. Without this young man’s prompting  I may still be pushing it off. Finally, finally, I decided to dig in, give it a go, and take the risk of implementing something new even though I had no idea of the shape it would take. Over the past couple of years I have started to take more risks with so much of my teaching but I still have a ways to go!

One of my teaching partners, Linda Wilson, had tried Genius Hour in her room last spring. She was impressed with the student learning and the creative, engaged process of students following their passions. Linda and I decided to do Genius Hour at the same time, that way I could use some of what she had already learned and we could share in the process. As we both have grade 6/7 combined classes we were planning to have the students work together on future GH projects so it made sense to do the first at the same time.

With two weeks left before the Christmas break I introduced Genius Hour to my class. I will leave the details of the actual process that took place  to another blog post but suffice toScreen shot 2014-01-13 at 7.58.21 PM say I could never have imagined what I witnessed from each and every student. The excitement towards learning, the engagement with every child, the creativity of their questions, the critical thinking of digging deeper, the problem solving, the sharing of specialties, this list could go on. I gave the students 4 in-class work sessions prior to share day and each of those days I would stop, look around and be thoroughly and completed in awe of what I saw.

Once again I have shown myself that I need to take risks more often in my teaching and worry less about it not coming out right because the right is what we make of the process. I need to set aside the day to day “stuff” and do what I know is right for for student learning and I need to follow that inner voice that says, “go for it, what do you have to lose.”

I could not have ended 2013 in a better way. A huge thank you to Gallit Zvi who started me 1aafd74e7a0100c095527ad156262eebon this journey, and to Denise Krebs, Joy Kirr and Hugh McDonald for publishing their own journeys; without knowing it, you helped to guide me to where I needed to go. And to all those educators who shared their Genius Hour journeys on the Wiki and Livebinder GH sites – thank you. I have a feeling that 2014 will be a year of even more changes inside Middleton’s class – I am so looking forward to jumping in to more deep ends.

If you would like to see the first Genius Hour projects please click the link to the class website Mrs. Middleton’s Class Genius Hour Page 1, Genius Hour Page 2, Genius Hour Page 3.

Who Grew More, the Student or Teacher?

Two years ago the grade 6 and 7 teachers at my school, along with our principal, made an important decision. Little did I know that this agreement would change my beliefs about what is best for student learning  nor did I realize this was the nudge I needed to take  risks and make changes in my teaching.

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Then there were 4.

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Now we are 5!

In June of 2011, after much consideration, the upper intermediate teachers decided to move from 3 straight grade 7 classes and one split to 4 combined 6/7s. Notice I used the term combined, not split. There is a very significant difference in how you teach a combined class versus a split class.

This was not an easy decision for me as I had been teaching grade 7 for many years. I was in a comfortable spot where I knew the curriculum  well enough  to be able to develop new approaches to what I did each year without having to learn a new curriculum. I had so many questions of what this combined class would look like and how the parents and kids would react after the years of tradition that had taken place at our school.

DSCF2049As a collaborative group we decided to take the leap,  to start a new journey. As we took this turn, we also were starting an inquiry on the use of technology and student engagement in the classroom. We also made a decision to run a two year program – the grade 6s would stay with their same teacher for two years. Thirdly, we made a conscientious decision to change the language in our classes to ‘learning’ language.

Our first two year cycle has come to an end; the grade 6s we started with are now off to 100_4596high school and ready to fly. As I reflect on this journey I am amazed, thrilled and a little dumbfounded at all that has transpired. What is even more powerful is that the students have recognized how far they have come in the two years and articulate it clearly to anyone who might ask.

What made the most impact on the change in student learning? I don’t know if I can prioritize this. I doIMG_0951 know that having the students for two years allowed growth for all. If you were to tell me that Mary (made up name) would grow from a timid, sometimes socially inappropriate, and disinterested child to a leader in the class as well as the school and a deep, reflective thinker I would have scoffed. If you would have told me that Johnny (again made up) would go from the highly disorganized, lose everything, one line writer to the focused (not all the time but most of the time), love to help others learn, and writer of thoughtful, detailed pieces I would laugh. But these as well as 11 other powerful stories did take place. The 13 grade 7 students who walked out my door on June 28th, 2013 are not the same students who walked in September 5, 2011. Some may say, “Maybe this growth would have happened anyway even without the same teacher for two years.” Who knows. What I do know, from my perspective, is that I am incredibly thankful to be the teacher who did have them for two years to witness their growth and did have the chance to push them to find their own potential. I am lucky to have been part of their world for the past two years.

Creating a combined class rather than a split class was also instrumental for the students.IMG_1031 We did all of our learning together (except Math); there was no split curriculum or sitting in separate parts of the class. Each student had an opportunity to work with everyone in the class, sit beside everyone, build relationships with everyone. The students did not see themselves as separate but as a family. As we reflected on this at the end of the year the students very clearly stated that it was the creation of the family unit that was incredibly important to them. They felt that we all built trust together and that we learned together.

Finally, the change of language. This is harder to describe. I made it intentional to promote the concept “we are all learners.” I was not the keeper of the knowledge. In December of 2012 one of my grade 6 students wrote on my blog,

IMG_0997Mrs. Middleton

It’s Slapshot one of your students and I’d just like to say that I think your an amazing learner and critical thinker. By the way you take time to write out these posts and are not afraid to share your learning with the world is just amazing! You are one of the only teachers I’ve ever had that has made learning fun, and it’s an honor to have you as my teacher but most of all a fellow learner. It’s not just us that learns but you can learn from us. Like just today you said to Skywalker in class that you could never come up with “International classmates” by yourself. That just shows how much you have pushed our thinking in the past 3 months.

Thank you for making this the best year of school yet and more to come.

Slapshot

This was so powerful, a wow moment – my students saw themselves, as well as the teacher, as a learner.

I also tried to instil in each of my students that it was the journey that was important, the journey is the learning, not some end grade. Students came to embrace this and stopped asking, “Is this for marks?” or “What is my mark?” They came to own their learning. Two years ago I was wondering how I could move my students from being observes of their learning to owners of their learning. Well they have done it and I cannot believe how  powerful this piece is and how proud they each are of their growth.

Haley and IIt was a very difficult good bye this past June for me. It is hard to say farewell to those who have been such a part of my life for so long. I can feel a sense of satisfaction and a lot of pride that these  students will succeed in their lives because they have taken on the ownership of their learning, they are wanting to succeed for themselves. I also am thrilled to know that 15 of my students will be walking back through my door in September ready to take the lead in our class, to build new relationships and to continue their growth where they left off. How exciting for us all.

I cannot imagine going back to the way it was in June 2011; too much of who I have become happened because of the changes my colleagues and I made over the past 2 years. I am extremely excited to continue this journey and see what else transpires for me in this wonderful profession I am a part of.

To end this year each student created a reflective animoto of their growth – where they have come from and where they are now. I have shared three with you here but all of the reflections can be found on my website at Student Reflections. These are  powerful examples of how far each has come in their own growth as well as the growth of the learner.

Student Reflection

Student Reflection 2

Student Reflection 3

I would like to hear of changes others have made this past year or two that have made a difference in your teaching and student learning. Please share a story or two of what has made an impact in  your teaching.

Its About Choice

In January after I wrote my post about Juggling the Learning I had a number of educators give me great advice. One of my readers stated, “if something on Twitter was important to you, it will find its way at just the right moment. On a Saturday morning in May that is exactly what happened. At just before 9:00 am I opened twitter to take a quick peak. There on my screen were a number of tweets reminding everyone about the liveclassroom2.0 session just about to take place on Genius Hour.  Even though my plan had been to tackle a pile of marking I decided to switch gears and join the session. I am so very glad I did.

UnknownI have been watching the growth of Genius Hour for just over a year. I met with Gallit Zvi, one of the driving forces behind GH, last summer to discuss passion based learning that was starting to pick up speed, and followers, throughout our school district and North America. I had planned to begin Genius Hour some time in the fall of 2012 but for many reasons this did not happen.

Even though Genius Hour has been on my “to do” list for the year I cannot add insight intoUnknown-1 how well this is going in my class.  Instead, after listening in and being a part of the liveclassroom2.0 session, this helped reaffirm in myself that what is happening  in my room, even though it is not attached to a specific approach to learning such as passion based learning, is valuable and is right for my students. I realized that I needed to acknowledge what was working and not chastise myself for what I have not done yet.

There were many comments made during the session about student choice, student ownership, student motivation and student engagement when teachers have implemented Genius Hour in their rooms. Even though I have never done GH I found myself nodding my head and agreeing with many about the importance of these things. I believe my students are engaged, are motivated, and are encouraged to own their learning and because of this I can see their enthusiasm and feel their positive energy each day.7228077_orig

Over the past couple of years I have been asked how my students have become owners of their learning. What is happening in my room that students have been quoted as saying,   “learning in this class is fun”? I believe at the base of much of the shift is CHOICE. “You always give us choice to roam our ideas on how we can make projects our own instead of giving us a straight assignment where we don’t get to do what we want. Like for presentations you give us the chance to express our understanding how we want to do it.” (Grade 7 student) When given a choice, no matter how  minor it may be, students feel like they are in charge and have a say in how they learn. This is making a difference.

Often teachers are worried about losing control in the room if students are given choice. Many hear ‘chaos’ when ‘student centred learning’ is mentioned. I have discovered that making some relatively small changes will have tremendous impact on how students feel about their learning.

One small adjustment that is fairly easy to implement and can have big results is lettingIMG_1697 students choose where they are most comfortable  learning. In our class we have tables to work at, bean bag chairs, a love seat, an open common area right outside our door, and a stand up desk with a moveable foot bar (would love more of these as it is in high demand by those students who need to be moving all the time). Students will even choose to sit on the bare floor with their backs against the wall. This would be uncomfortable for me but not for them.  If students are not required to be in a specific location they move to where they are comfortable and can focus. They choose their spot depending on their needs and the needs of their learning. Rarely do they make poor decisions as they value the freedom of this choice.

3919197_origAnother avenue of choice that has shifted the ownership piece in the class, is how students are able to demonstrate their learning. It has been a rare occurrence this year that I ask for the same product as a summative piece. As long as they are meeting the learning outcomes, and are following the criteria, they can choose to demonstrate their learning in their own ways. It is not uncommon for projects to come to me as booklets, posters, power points, prezis, google presentations, voice threads, on ipad apps such as Book Creator and the list goes on. Currently the students are showing their learning of a measurement unit and the projects are all individual and unique. 3525026_origSome students are working in partners, some on their own. Some are using technology, some are creating models, and some are hand drawing the designs. Students  value the choice, therefore are able to showcase their learning to a higher standard then if I prescribed the how and what. “I also have changed in the way I make my presentations because before all I could make my projects out of was a poster board, but now I have the “CHOICE” of how I want to do my projects and it has made me a better student because I don’t like when I only have one option of how to do something because I have different ways of expressing my learning and when I get choose my way of doing something I do much better.” (Grade 7 student)

So even though I have yet to try Genius Hour in my room (it is at the top of my priority list), many of the benefits that have been witnessed by educators who are doing it are also what I am seeing each day in my room. By allowing for student choice, students will become engaged in their learning and the ownership piece will evolve naturally.  I only wish I had learned this years ago!6721354_orig