Genius hour has such a nice ring to it, don’t you think? Time to develop and implement your own genius, who couldn’t use that? Imagine what you might create for your classes or school with a PD day (or 10) to do just what you know you need to do, instead of just what your admin thinks you need to do.
Students can thrive with the same freedom, though it helps to have some structure built in. With a genius hour project, you give your kids time to pursue something they’re passionate about – whether that’s designing and coding a robot, starting a small business to sell their famous chocolate chip cookies at the Farmer’s market, or starting a social media campaign to bring more diverse books to local libraries. You just never know what students might do!
Today I’m going to walk you through a wide range of ideas to help support your genius hour program. Here’s the thing, genius hour can appear in a million different outfits. You can give your students one week and finish it with mini video documentaries. You can give them a year and finish with Ted-style talks. You can give them every Friday for six months and have them create companion podcasts. You can give them tons of structure, not much structure, tons of mini-lessons, no mini-lessons, hyperdoc resource guides and complementary videos, no resource guides, no videos.
See what I mean? There’s no way for me to cover every way you could do a genius hour, and that’s not my intention. I’m just going to lay out some structural ideas here to help get your wheels turning about just HOW GREAT genius hour could be for your kids. And while I think genius hour is a great go-to project for every class, in every year, if your seniors are starting to slide right now or your kids are feeling apathetic after this difficult year, now just might be one of the best times every to throw caution to the wind and give kids a chance to strike out on their own with genius hour.
You can listen in on the podcast player below, or on your favorite platform. Or, read on!
#1 Start by Rallying their Enthusiasm
Some kids will have heard of the concept of 20 time, the way Google gives their employees 1/5 of their time to pursue independent projects they’re passionate about. Google has gained many of their top programs, like Gmail, Google maps, and Google talk, from 20 time. Your students may enjoy hearing about this when you introduce the project. I created the video below to help introduce the concept of genius hour to kids, and playing it is another great way to rally student enthusiasm for the project!
#2 Center Growth Mindset
Genius hour is a great time to talk about the power of yet. Sure, your student might not know how to get their artwork into a local gallery…. yet. They might not know how to submit a podcast to Apple Podcasts… yet. They might not know how to reach out to an Instagram influencer about a social media collaboration… yet. Genius hour is about learning and trying new things, and sometimes failing. But not giving up.
Keep the power of yet on the tip of your tongue as you introduce the project, meet with students, and encourage those who run into difficulties.
However you want to structure your project, it’s a good idea to make it very clear to your students from the start. Are they going to have Mondays to work on their passions and Fridays to document them in their projects? Are they going to pursue their passions for two weeks and then spend two weeks prepping a final product to showcase their work and results? What exact elements do you want them to check off along the way? You may wish to create a project proposal form, a checklist of required components, and a rubric that is more about growth mindset, effort, and mastery than about exactly what the final product looks like.
#4 Three Styles of Project
I find it helpful to think of three categories of final product. You can either ask students to pursue one of them, or give them the choice of two or three. As they pursue their project, do they want their final product to DOCUMENT their work, TEACH others how to follow in their footsteps, or CREATE a platform from which they could make their passion a business?
For example, let’s consider a student who loves photography and wants their genius hour project to revolve around photography.
For a documenting project, the student might use a platform to showcase their best photos from the project time period and explain what they did to improve their skills. Maybe they might display their work in a local coffee shop or gallery.
For a teaching project, the student might create a series of video lessons about photography, teaching others what they have learned along the way and using their photos to illustrate the principles they want to convey.
For a business-based project, the student might take their photos, learn how to print and frame them, and start a business Instagram feed to sell them, work with a local art store to showcase several of them for sale, or go through the process of applying to become a vendor at a local art festival.
Genius hour fits into ELA skills so easily. Whatever kids do, you can have them create a companion piece that uses their speaking, writing, researching, arguing, editing, etc. skills to go with it. I like to think of this as the platform that goes with the passion, and it is the foundation of so many careers these days.
Think about how many creative people can use a platform to fund their creative work today. Bakers take to Instagram to give live demonstrations of how to make incredible cookies, the best and most persistent eventually landing cookbook deals, t.v. shows, and influencer status. Writers start podcasts to build their audience up, gaining readers and royalties along the way. Nonprofit leaders start hashtags, build followings, and create collaborations with others to gain national recognition and funding for the work they care about.
When you teach students how to use a platform to share their greatest interests, you not only teach them ELA skills, you give them directly marketable skills for today’s world.
There are so many possible platforms students could use to showcase their work. You can choose to give them full choice, or to focus in.
Podcasts are one easy option, with students using Vocaroo, a free online tool, to record their voices. They can create an album cover in Canva, embed their sound files in Google Slides, or even (with parent or guardian permission), host a free public podcast at Anchor FM.
Example Podcast Cover for a Piano Playing Genius Hour Project
Instagram is another great option. Students can create private feeds there, or create an IG-style feed on Google slides, featuring square imagery and well-developed captions, square or long story-style videos, and other types of IG stories or reels to showcase their project work. It’s certainly not hard to sell them on the power of the platform, and with reels now featuring heavily in most IG strategy, your Tik-Tok afficianados will enjoy getting to share their skills as part of their project.
Example imagery for an IG-based baking genius hour project
Blogs and vlogs work great too. Kids can document their work with photos, videos, and narratives on a blog, or put it all into video episodes on a vlog. They can house it all safely and privately in Google slides, or you can see if you can navigate the permissions at your school to let them create Youtube channels or live blog sites on free platforms like Squarespace, Blogger, WordPress, or Wix. It’s important that they never share their personal info online, so if you do get permission to let them go live, remind them not to share their last names, addresses, or phone numbers. Ever.
Example Youtube cover for a reading genius hour project vlog
Below, check out an example of a blog portfolio page hosted in Slides. Everything is there and ready to go live to the internet, but it is safely housed in a private platform for the purposes of the project.
Example blog post for a genius hour project with a focus on teaching others how to braid
These four are just the tip of the iceberg. You could easily have kids do Shark Tank-style business proposals, Ted-style talks (or even host a real TedX conference), create book proposals to send to a local publisher, or….. (insert your ideas here!).
#6 The Final Showcase
If you hang out here much, you know how I feel about giving kids a chance to showcase what they’ve done. It’s huge! While the final showcase will look wildly different in different classrooms, find a way to let kids share their incredible work back to their peers, and ideally, the wider school community or even the public. If you’ve devoted serious time and energy to the project together, invite a local reporter! Or the parents. Or your principal. Or the whole freshmen class. Or all of them!
Think about creative ways your students could bring their projects out into the community, if they haven’t already. Maybe host a public genius hour fair in your library (post-COVID).
Take lots of pictures! Bring food. Play music. Make programs. Or gather student committees to bring food, play music, make programs, and take photos. This is one of my favorite ways to coordinate special events, putting the students onto committees like “atmosphere,” “publicity,” and “programs.”
#7 Ready, Set, Go!
Ok, I think you’re ready! Let’s review.
Start by rallying your students’ enthusiasm for their own passions. Talk to them about Google’s 20 time and play them the introductory video I created for you.
Keep growth mindset and the power of yet at the tip of your tongue (and on your door) as you launch genius hour. No one masters everything on the first try! Learning not to give up is part of the point of doing the project. Get your students Googling and Youtube searching for answers and tutorials when they hit a stopping point.
Figure out how much time you can devote to the project and give kids a clear schedule and set of requirements from the get-go. Talk to them about using their final product to either document, teach, or showcase something they wish to sell (or point them in one of these directions). Then share the platform options you’d like them to run with or give them their own full choice but have them write out proposals for you so you have a chance to check in with everyone before they launch and make sure their project is doable and showcases their ELA skills at some point.
Finally, once your project is complete, raise the roof as students showcase their work to each other, their families, and your community. No amount of hooplah is too much if you all have devoted yourselves throughout the year to cultivating and sharing the incredible creativity inside your students through a genius hour project!