Increase Engagement and Social Impact in your Classroom with Genius Hour
Updated: Aug 23
A story on how the UN Global Goals changed and shaped the classroom, for the better.
It is currently May of 2020, and don't worry, I'm not even going to START talking about this year... I'm taking you back to the summer of 2016, the very beginning of my journey through the SDGs. The purpose of this special series of "parts" is to break down my personal story so you can get to know me as an educator, and also learn from my experiences and mistakes. This series of blog posts is pretty unfiltered, I feel like I am putting myself "out there", but I think it is important for educators to see all aspects of the journey and not just the highlighted successes being posted about today. So thank you for making it this far in the blog, I hope you find a bit of yourself in the story as well :).
I was teaching 8th-grade science at the time. 8th grade is a super interesting age group to teach! They are the leaders of the middle school, they have fully evolved away from the innocent tween and into a rebellious teen (generally speaking;). I loved the age though, it meant a challenge for me as an educator to keep them engaged with new and exciting lessons, while still attempting for them to truly understand science! When people ask me my favorite part about being a teacher, my answer is always the creation of activities and ramping up lesson ideas. Most teachers say "the kids!", and don't get me wrong, I like the kids, but I like creating the opportunities for them even more :).
My habits involve always needing to modify lessons to fit some kind of bigger picture or mission, I have been that way my entire career, perhaps you as well! This is a blessing and a curse because I am ALWAYS creating more work for myself than I really need to. In the world of education, you never have to recreate the wheel if you don't want to. There are so many great teachers sharing their ideas, blogging, selling resources, and more in the world today. My problem is... I want to innovate the wheel. How can the wheel be better? Faster? Lighter? Maybe a wheel isn't needed! Hovercrafts? Drones? What if I ask my students how the wheel could be better? What ideas could they come up with? Likely better than my own! My brain can be overwhelming, right? It is sometimes hard for me to handle at times...
So going back to the summer of 2016... I was reflecting on what needed improvement. It was the first time in 7 years of teaching that I was assigned the same subject and grade level. My brain was in overdrive because I could finally improve the previous lessons AND have more time to try completely new things.
I was surfing the internet to find ways to improve a weekly issue I had... WEDNESDAYS. Wednesdays in our schedule at the time consisted of seven 25 minute sessions back-to-back all crammed into one day. This was due to 3 hours of professional development for teachers in the morning, so it squished the school day into a half-day to cover the same amount of classes. 25 minutes was barely enough time to get a quality lesson in, and the kids (particularly 8th graders), knew this. Students would make it difficult for teachers to make the most of the time, thinking that it wasn't enough time to do any "real" work. This summer, I refused to dread every Wednesday for the upcoming year. I was going to have some structure where the kids knew exactly what to do before they even came to class, productively utilize every minute, and actually want to be there and do the work.
Right after the school year ended, I attended a webinar about "genius hour" and I thought that there was definitely something there. For those who haven't heard about it, the idea stemmed from Google's 20% time. Employees at Google were encouraged to work on any project they wanted for 20% of their paid time working, as long as it was tech-involved or had the potential for growth. It was a big contributor to the innovative ideas and success Google has had.
Teachers transformed this technique from Google into Genius Hour, allowing students 1 hour consistently (once a week or so, some did time every day) to work on ANY skill they wanted or felt passionate about. I knew that if I allowed that with my 8th graders, I would likely have half the class wanting to master their favorite social app on their phone and the other half asking to leave so they could master a sport they wanted to work on. I knew it wouldn't work. It would be a headache for me with that age group, but I liked the idea of choice. Choice in the classroom can be extremely powerful, but I needed something more meaningful to focus their attention, but not necessarily as narrow as "only science", since not all 8th graders love science as much as I do... unfortunately.
You'd think an initiative like the UN Global Goals would catch like wildfire the minute it was released in 2015, but in my experience, it has been quite different. I had no clue about the goals. I had never heard about them, never seen them anywhere, nothing. I even had students constantly doing current event articles the previous year and, even reviewing those, nothing about the SDGs ever came to light.
I don't remember what I searched that day to make those 17 colorful boxes pop up on my screen, but when it did, I literally jumped for joy. I was by myself at the time, so I had no person to immediately share this excitement with, but I did have my dog around. So I word-vomited the whole idea to him! After calming down, I realized I finally had it. I could combine the framework of the UN Global Goals along with the idea of "Genius Hour" to give the power of choice for my students while simultaneously keep their focus on something of a larger meaning, something of true impact, and eventually have the opportunity to take action!
In simpler terms, I would dedicate those crazy-short Wednesday classes into what I called "Innovation Hour". Every Wednesday, students would know ahead of time that this was their one time in the week to work on a project of their choice, as long as it was matching with a global goal they felt passionate about. The theme for the entire year in my classroom was Innovation, which is why I chose "innovation hour" instead of "genius hour". This was just the birth of an idea, but I felt like it was something that would change my life as an educator... and four years later, it most certainly did!
So how was I going to execute this idea? It needed to be smooth, and it was far from simple. I love project-based learning, but if you do not approach it with the right kind of organization, it can blow up in your face. In addition to that, I had 180 students assigned to me that year, that is a lot of tracking... the kids didn't have a clue about the goals, that would need to be addressed too... do they even know how to manage long term projects? How long was I going to do this? A few months? A semester? A year?
The story continues onto part 2, and your engagement will be worth the time because it was a HUGE success and I will break down everything I did to get there. I will also share my reflections on what I would do differently so you don't make the same mistakes!
Want to read part 2 now? Click Here!
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Stay adventurous :)
Founder of Virescent Inspiration