Jumping into Genius Hour — Guest Post by Tony Klein

image credit: samuiblue via freedigitalphotos.net

image credit: samuiblue via freedigitalphotos.net

In the midst of this frigid winter, my heart was warmed during a visit to Estherville Lincoln Central Community School District in northern Iowa.  The teachers and administrators there are extremely passionate and are ready for change in the classroom.  With the support of his colleagues, history teacher Tony Klein boldly made the leap to bring Genius Hour into his classroom!  In this post, he shares his reasoning behind the decision and his vision for the journey.  Stay tuned to Tony’s blog and follow him on Twitter @tklein11 for updates and to support him and his genius students!

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I recently surrendered eighteen of the ninety school days this semester for my students to work on Genius Hour.  As it was, ninety days in a semester was not enough to teach all the lessons I would like to teach.  SO WHAT IN THE WORLD AM I DOING?  Implementing Genius Hour is a big change–revolutionary, perhaps–and like all big changes (such as the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the French Revolution) there are many influences: Daniel Pink’s Drive, a professional Development day with Angela Maiers, support from the administration, current trends in popular historiography, and most importantly, my instincts.

Genius Hour is, simply, the opportunity for students to spend twenty percent of their time on a topic that intersts, excites, and challenges them.  On Friday, January 24, 2014, I introduced Genius Hour to my Civics, Geography, and World History students.  Genius Hour in my classroom uses models other teacher have used, primarily Chris Kesler’s “Genius Hour” website.   There are three requirements:  1.  The students must choose a topic they are passionate about or interested in. 2. They must do research.  3. The students must have a larger purpose in choosing their topic, such as “How can I make a difference?” or “What do I want others to know about my topic?”

Now for the ideological origins of Genius Hour in my classroom…

1. I am currently taking courses for a second master’s degree, this one an MS in Education through Southwest Minnesota State University.  Each month, a course requirement is to read a work on an educational topic.  During the first week of January, I read Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink, an option for our January meeting on motivation.  Pink hypothesizes that most people in our contemporary economy are motivated by the desire for more autonomy, the opportunity to achieve mastery, and doing work that is purposeful.  He argues, therefore, that a system of rewards and punishments, which dominated the twentieth-century business and education systems, no longer works today and must be replaced.  Among the alterations he suggests is Genius Hour, which originated with Google.  Though intrigued by this idea, Pink’s argument was not enough to sway me to give up twenty percent of class time to my students’ interests.

2. On Wednesday, January 15, Estherville-Lincoln Central teachers had a professional development day in which Angela Maiers, a nationally known educational consultant from Des Moines, was the key-note speaker.  Among Maiers’s major messages was that students need to be told that they matter, they are geniuses, they have the opportunity to follow their passions, and they can make a difference in their world.  What really resonated with me was when she off-handedly mentioned how her vision for schools were similar to Pink’s vision for businesses.  In a moment of extreme clairvoyance, I instantaneously committed myself to implementing Genius Hour in my classroom.  Whatever concerns I had vanished and I became certain of the benefits of providing students the time and support to pursue their interests and passions.

3. Pay close attention to the previous sentence: the words “I …committed” imply autonomy.  So I have the autonomy to give students autonomy!  (There’s a great lesson in classical early modern European political philosophy here, but I’ll avoid that.) I have this autonomy because the leadership at ELC is reading and thinking the same way I am.  Or vice versa.  Regardless, I decided on my own without asking because I knew that I would have the support, and encouragement, of Mrs. Paul, Mr. Christenson, Mrs. Jensen, and Mrs. Nitchals.  They cultivated an atmosphere in which my ideas could be implemented in my classroom, and more importantly, students’ ideas could be pursued to further their own learning.

4. So what will students be working on? (This will be the subject of my next post)  Won’t they be pursue topics that are not academic, like wake-surfing, the history of volleyball, or Dr. Who?  Yes, they will.  Other students, however, are working on profound historical topics or projects that can help others, such as the origins of chess, the Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and the Battle of Mogadishu.  But even the seemingly academically questionable topics ARE WORTHY of study because framed the right way, topics such as wake-surfing, volleyball, and Dr. Who can highlight much larger principles or trends in history or the contemporary world.  Moreover, having my students turn the superficially trivial into the deeply profound is a model that can be seen in the popular historiography today, which uses everyday objects, places, and events to illuminate larger concepts or principles in history.  Throughout my course, I have students read excerpts from works such as Tom Standage’s A History of the World in Six Glasses, An Edible History of Humanity,  Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, and Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest.  Each of these titles tells a world history through a series of everyday objects or ideas.  The authors use coffee, pop, canned food, fertilizer, plates and dishes, coins, blue jeans, and myriad other items to highlight larger forces in world history.  Thus, students exploring their own interests, with my guidance, can do the same kind of thinking as these renowned scholars.

5. Let’s revisit the second sentence of this piece: “As it was, ninety days in a semester was not enough to teach all the lessons I would like to teach.”  Did you catch that?  “…the lessons I would like to teach.”  That statement encapsulates a perspective that values the teacher’s interests more than students’ interests.  I teach history and social studies, in part, because I love history and social studies.  My pleasure reading is almost exclusively history and social studies.   But what about students who do not love history and social studies?  As long as I’ve taught, I’ve recognized that no matter how relevant I try to make history to students’ lives, some do not see the value of the social studies.  In the past I have tried to find manageable ways to make the subject matter more individualized, and I had never found something what seemed to balance teaching skills and content with student interests.  The genius of Genius Hour is that it recognizes that teachers still have four days a week to teach the content, skills, and lesson that s/he thinks will help students learn.  Genius Hour recognizes that there is value to very well-established academic disciplines such as history, but on one day of the week  students who may not enjoy history or the social studies have the opportunity to pursue a topic that they want to learn about it.  I believe Genius Hour will be a very worthwhile pursuit in my classroom because it recognizes students desire for autonomy (the opportunity to select a topic and the time to work on it), mastery (sharing the topic with their peers or the public), and purpose (the opportunity to select a topic that will inform or help others).

6. So what about those eighteen or so lessons that won’t be taught?  No problem.  The students are generating replacement lessons to share their learning with their peers.  They have the opportunity to do what I do everyday–share my passion with others.

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