Genius Hour = 21st Century Schoolhouse

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As  our schoolyear winds down (3 weeks left and counting), my students are gearing up.  In two weeks they are presenting their Genius Hour* projects.  This is a culmination of a year long of study on…anything they want. Taking the Google model of ‘20% time’ (20% of the workweek devoted to a topic or invention of choice) we have given every Friday for the last year to self-selected topics for study or interest.  It may be the best instruction I’ve never done.

Last week the first part of the student presentations were due. This included their ‘burning question(s), their sources (even those that didn’t work so well) and a few paragraphs about their journey with Genius Hour throughout the year.  I was amazed. Some of their questions changed completely during the course of the year; Billy started out wanting to know about tax codes but he ended  teaching himself Welsh. Others had a natural evolution as the research led the students into more personal paths; Grace wanted to know about world hunger.  She found statistics about the number of hungry children and the amount of food wasted each day by the United States.  This led her to strong desire to ‘really make a difference’.  She is challenging the entire 7th grade to participate in  She estimates it will result in a donation of 60,000 grains of rice, service learning at it’s finest!

Lawson began by wanting to know what makes a rapper successful.  After numerous raps created over lunchtime, he decided he was ready.  His friend, Kyle, will supply the beat in their professional debut video.  Christina wanted to know how other countries celebrate holidays. Her final project will be a Christmas tree with 30 other holiday traditions as decoration.  Some students will be teaching us tumbling, how to lace a lacrosse stick, and how to draw.  They are excited to share their projects with another middle school close to us, to skype with another 7th grade class in the midwest, and to enter the Genius Hour Fair (which allows voting for videos of Genius Hour projects online).

Research has taken on a whole new meaning for them.  Rivka wanted to study the D Day invasion.  Here’s what she said in her reflection: ‘I had a little bit of trouble at first, finding real life stories of soldiers, but I finally found some really good sources.  I am really interested by these stories, because they are so real.  I was also surprised to see real thoughts that were in soldiers’ heads instead of stuff you would read in a book, and how different they were.’ Since writing this, she has interviewed a D Day medic at her church.  She intends to make a model of the beach at Normandy as part of her final project.

Nathan originally wanted to build his own soccer ball.  He was frustrated by the online videos and how complicated the process was.  He was almost ready to switch to another topic when he found a site that changed his mind…and his world view. ‘Send A Cow is a web page all about the struggles people in Africa face in everyday life.  The page I stumbled across is their love for the game of soccer.  The fact that they make their own soccer balls of common everyday objects that we would think of as trash like plastic bags and old socks inspired me to try and create my own.  I gathered my supplies and built the plastic bag base of the soccer ball thanks to a video I found on the Send A Cow webpage.  I was supposed to use string to tie the whole ball together but I couldn’t clearly see the the certain knot they were using.  I was stuck until I looked for support from my friend and he gave me the idea of using rubber bands as an alternative which worked perfectly.’ Nathan is going to compare his original soccer ball and his African soccer ball in his final project.

I have been continually impressed by the students’ willingness to persevere.  Even when their burning questions weren’t being answered, or they hit dead ends in their research, they continually cheered each other on and encouraged one another to find another way.  Hayley, who wanted to find out how to help abused animals said this, ‘When I first started out, I found some facts, but they weren’t the facts I was looking for. I got mad/discouraged and thought that there wasn’t a lot for my topic. So I added the question about the animal stats and that helped me along a little bit. But then the next time I went to work on it, I tried searching for some new things and a lot of new things popped up that I hadn’t looked at. That also helped me find some new facts and answer my first question more.’ Sounds like research to me!

The bonus, of course, is that I get to learn all this cool stuff right along with them.  Sophia reminded me of how much I loved the Greek gods and goddesses.  She’s making a coloring book to help us remember them all.  Zach is teaching himself Italian with the goal of surprising his father and grandfather with some phrases for Father’s Day.  Owen is teaching himself programming.  I’m not sure I understand even his reflection, ‘First I wanted to make and program a  robot, but I realized that was too hard and went to programming Python, then I felt like I should be different from my brothers, so I went to JavaScript.  After I found Codecademy I started to quickly learn JS, and after a while I was able to make a “choose your own adventure game”. I also found code school, but got confused after a while. I kept going with Codecademy and now I am learning functions and returns, if I ever get confused I go to JSlint (a JavaScript checker) with an easy to understand explanation.’ Whew! Go, Owen! 🙂

This was, by far, the favorite project of my students going back over 30 years.  They were engaged, persistent, collaborative, and passionate about this work.  Everything I love about teaching and learning came true during Genius Hour. Grace may have said it best, ‘Even though this hasn’t been the easiest project, it was the most fun.’ 


* Special thanks to Joy Kirr for her inspiration and her push.



High Costs for High Stakes

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This week marks the start of high stakes testing at my school.  The students have been at DEFCON 2, probably as a result of their teachers exhibiting high anxiety levels. This is the most stressful time of year for my students.  They are worried about everything; whether they will pass, what it will mean if they don’t, will it impact their grades, if they fail, will they be retained? and on and on the list of stressors goes.  Keep in mind, these students have been taking these high stakes tests since 3rd grade and the answers to their questions have never changed.

This year, we get an added bonus – expedited retakes.  Our state has decided that if a student fails within a certain range, they will be immediately remediated and retested, in the hopes they will pass the second time.  Here is the problem: the tests do not reflect how real readers read and real writers write. My students choose their own books to read and for the most part, the topics they write about. Yes, I teach skills, strategies, and grammar but it takes place within the context of authentic texts, and for writing, from their own pieces.  This is considered best practice for English instruction in middle schools. The tests could not be further removed from that practice.  Instead they are an endurance test – how many boring passages can we cram into one test with questions designed not to find if you are a thoughtful reader, but whether you are a clever test-taker?

We tell our students that they are not to worry about the test but to do their best.  Each September, though, one of the first things we do is to check if they passed the test in the previous grade.  As long as the success of students (and their teachers) rests on the results of the tests, they will remain high stakes but I don’t want Pearson to determine the success of my students. That success is a conversation between each of my students, their parents, and me. That success is looking at their portfolios and documenting all the excellent decisions they made in 7th grade that resulted in a powerful writing piece, or a book they adored.  That success is seeing them dance and sing with the students in the self-contained class who join us for brain break every Friday. That success is seeing them stomp and cheer for one another in our annual Poetry Slam. That success is seeing them conduct their student led conferences with their parents, where they articulate exactly what success means to them, with evidence to prove it.

As part of our testing review this year, we had the students write poems entitled, ‘I Am Not the Test’ to help them remember where their worth truly lies.  Here are some samples:

I am not the test 

but I am joyful, athletic, and

musical. I am

outgoing, kind and comedic,

I am not the test, 

but I am intelligent, happy, 

and theatrical.

I am not the test.



I’m not the test.

I’m awesome and funny.

I’m smart and cool.

I’m not stupid or

boring. I have lots

of friends.

I’m not a loser.

I’m a winner.



I am not the test…

I am the basketball player,

The guy who’s 6 feet tall, 196.9 pounds,

And can jump 23.7 inches.

I am the trumpet player,

Who can say no to too many concerts.

I am the helpful, smart, kind boy

Who knows determination, who can work hard,

Who you can rely on.

I am the guy who can touch the 9’ rim.

I am the 140 pound weight lifter.

I am NOT the test.



I am not the test.

You can test failure,

You can test soil,

But you can’t test me.

I am strong.

Sometimes I’m wrong.

But you can’t test me.



I am not the test,

You cannot test emotions.

You cannot test sports.

You can test boring math but

All you get is a number.

Good grades mean more than a bad SOL grade.

Good is such a strong word,

But bad is stronger.

Calling someone bad

Just because of your grade on a test

Is not fair because

I am not the test.



I am not the test.

I am an independent person.

I take care of those around me.

I have the ability to pick you up if you fall.

I am not the test.

I am not a number.

I am not an item with a label.

I am not one to judge.

I am not the test.

I am the crazy laugher, the over-thinker.

I am the one always taking pictures.

I am one to love nature.

I am not the test.



I am not the test…

But I am smart.

I always challenge myself

To reach for the moon,

And, someday, I’ll land on it.


I can play the piano,

When I play the notes and

Sing along, beautiful harmonies

Float from my fingers like leaves

Caught in the wind of song.


I can act.

When I was Alice

I looked in every rabbit hole,

And I stepped into her shoes.

I was in Wonderland, singing with the Tweedles.


I always stay true to myself

I can’t let other people

Tell me who I am

I will always be me,

I am not a test.


What will be the cost for Megan, or Billy, or Logan if they happen not to pass the test? Will they look back and say, ‘That was the year I failed.”?  After a year of hard work, moments of brilliance, perseverance, and creative writing, will they be able to remember that they are NOT the test?  High stakes, indeed.