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When Genius Hour WORKS

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Have you ever wished you could get students excited about genius hour, then immediately wondered what you’d do if half of them couldn’t think of a topic? Well, today on the podcast, creative teacher Melissa Moser is here to talk about one of her favorite electives to teach – Genius Hour, and exactly how she sets students up for success – even the ones who just don’t know what passion to pursue when it comes to a passion project.

This is a topic near and dear to my heart, and I think you’re going to love all the specifics Melissa shares.

Ooh, and real quick, if you’re wondering what I mean by genius hour, I’d like to suggest you hit pause and go back to episode 122, The Ultimate Guide to Genius Hour. You’ll enjoy this amazing case study so much more once you understand exactly what it means to give your students the time and space to study their own greatest interests in a genius hour project. OK, let’s dive in!

You can listen in to this episode below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.

Meet Melissa

Melissa Moser, veteran teacher, is part of the English department at a career tech school in Ohio known locally as “The best kept secret in the area.” The school has popular programs in fields like pre-engineering, pre-dentistry, graphic design, and welding.

Students focus on the core English classes junior year, then move into semester electives in their senior year. Melissa teaches senior courses like personal passion projects (genius hour), special genres, and speaking through digital media.

So exciting, right?

Melissa’s Genius Hour Elective: Foundations

Melissa’s course came out of the early spring of the pandemic, when she pulled a simple structure for genius hour from Spark Creativity to try with her students at home.

She got good results from her early experiments during those difficult days, then joined The Lighthouse and tried the full genius hour project inside.

You can find this curriculum on TPT here, or learn more about The Lighthouse here

After participating in training on Inquiry-Based-Learning at her school, she decided to pitch a semester-long elective based on the combination of inquiry practices and genius hour. Her new course was approved!

Choosing Genius Hour Project Topics

Melissa and her students kick off the elective with self-exploration, considering their passions first before moving into the projects.

If the students feel confident and excited, they move into the projects quickly. If they need more help, there’s more focus on examples and models, articles, questionnaires, and advice from previous students on being successful in the course. Melissa takes a flexible approach, since not all student groups respond to the idea of pursuing their passion in the same way.

Once Melissa feels the kids are ready, it’s time for them to write a proposal.

This part of the project involves an extensive Google Doc with questions helping them to think through what they’re trying to learn, why they want to learn it, and how they’ll show what they’ve learned.

Most importantly, they need to create a driving question – an open-ended question that can’t be quickly answered or quickly Googled. These questions are a challenge to come up with, so Melissa shares a specific process with them that she learned in her Inquiry-Based Learning training.

It’s called “The QFT” – The Question Formulation Technique. Take a look at this helpful video for a breakdown.

Melissa’s students start by defining their general topic – for example, R & B Music.

Then they start to list questions about it on a piece of paper – as many questions as they can think of, any structure, any format.

Next, they play with their questions. They shift open questions to closed, closed to open.

Finally, once they have TONS of questions, they start to prioritize them.

Melissa’s student who explored R & B music ended up with these three questions: Does R & B in the traditional sense, really still exist today, or is it gone? Who is making R & B music, if anyone is? What is the future of R & B Music?

Finally, students write a justification for the questions – why THESE questions? With these questions at hand and their proposal flushed out in the Google doc, they’re ready to pitch their idea to their peers.

Pitching their Genius Hour Projects

At this point in the project, students pitch to small groups of their classmates. They need to share what they want to learn, why, and which platform they’ll use to document the journey (vlog, podcast, blog, or IG-style feed on Slides).

Melissa says that nine times out of ten the kids are approved by their peers, but occasionally the process of pitching leads them to shift a little bit or even realize they aren’t happy with their direction and choose a different topic. Better to realize it now than halfway through!

Digging into the Projects

Now they move into their research, which looks different for every student. Their first steps may well be online, but anytime they can meet with a real person that is a high priority in the class. Some student are able to set up meetings with experts, including lab instructors within the school.

Melissa notes that during this part of the course, the script is flipped, because as the teacher you can facilitate but you are unlikely to be an expert in their topics!

This can be a challenge, since you can keep encouraging them and trying to help them get through their roadblocks, but you won’t always have the perfect resource or next step for them. Melissa often reaches out to her school’s media specialist to ask for help and support for student researchers. She recommends creating a partnership with your school librarian or media specialist as a wonderful asset to your genius hour program if that is a possibility for you.

One Memorable Project

While many students come up with projects quickly, some struggle. Melissa has a method she found long ago online that she uses to help kids who don’t hit on a topic quickly. She invites them to create a tournament-style bracket of thing they love on the left, things they DON’T on the right, then choose winners all the way up to the finals. Then she asks them – how can they use the thing they love to help solve the thing they don’t?

One student who struggled like this ended up with softball as the winner on the right, and on the left, the thing she didn’t love was when neighborhoods lost their softball programs.

This led beautifully into a project to help people become volunteers for local softball programs.

Although she was a reserved student in class, she created a blog reaching out to the community with videos and volunteer resources to help people new to the sport understand softball rules so they could help support programs in need of more willing adults.

When a Genius Hour Project doesn’t End According to Plan

Melissa makes it clear that sometimes projects aren’t going to come to a perfect resolution. Students might run out of time or hit some other roadblock.

She lets them know it’s OK to present at the end of the term on how a project worked out and what the process was like, including ups and downs and how they’d continue if they had more time. This helps reduce the pressure to tie off their genius hour project-based learning into a perfect package with a neat bow (since PBL doesn’t always work out like that!).

Melissa’s Gem for Presentations: Add an Interactive Element

Over the years, Melissa has hit on a crucial element in the final presentations – something that makes everyone enjoy the end of term so much more.

She requires every student to include an interactive element, so the class is engaged and learning about the topic of the passion project.

For example, recently a student completed a project on cake decorating. She brought in cupcakes for the whole class along with frosting bags to help them try out some of the techniques she had been working on.

So fun, right?

Melissa’s students talk about how ultimately the presentations are their favorite part.

Final Words of Wisdom

Melissa encourages keeping an open mind as you introduce genius hour. She has experienced a range of enthusiasm over the years. Not every group you get will be super open-minded like you think they will be. Some groups are so creative and collaborative, while others are not super engaged and aren’t used to the role reversal of having to lead their own learning. As Melissa puts it, just keep facilitating, encouraging, suggesting!

One thing that helps is to introduce the project with enthusiasm, saying something like “You’ve hit the educational jackpot!” and returning to that idea throughout the term. They get to pick their own story, their own content. Just keep reinforcing the fact that it’s an opportunity if they let themselves see it that way. Check out the Genius Hour project on TPT here.

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