Genius Hour in Elementary

Last year, I did my very first Genius Hour in my third grade classroom.  For those who have never heard of Genius Hour, it is a student-directed hour of independent projects that was based on Google's 80/20 philosophy of work.  (More on that here, plus a great video to show parents and kids!).  It gives students a chance to explore their passions and interests and allows them to develop a lifelong love for learning.  It also helps to hone research and presentation skills in a way that is 'outside of the box' and creative.

Most of the blogs I had read ahead of time seemed to use Genius Hour in the upper elementary, middle, and high school grades.  Looking back, I wonder if I was crazy to try it with eight year olds.

Maybe I was. At times, it was insanely chaotic.  I definitely 'bit off more than I could chew' and it was a lot more work than I anticipated. But it was such an overwhelming success with my students that I am set on doing it again this year, and learning from the parts that I was ill-prepared for.

Most of the work came from being under-prepared.  I hadn't fully thought through what it would take to prepare seven, eight, and nine year-olds for independent work.  

Yes,  they are capable of it... but it takes scaffolding and intentional instruction to give them the tools to succeed!  

So, learning from my mistakes, here are four tips for a smoother, well-planned Genius Hour in Elementary!

Genius Hour in Elementary Tip One:  Model Everything

One of the most valuable things I learned in leading Genius Hour in third grade was to model all pieces of the process.  Instead of telling my students to come up with a topic, I participated in Genius Hour alongside them and verbalized my thinking process out loud.

"What kinds of things am I interested in, I'll write them down!  The ocean, hockey, running, cooking.  I love to build stuff.  When I was at the ocean I saw a family flying the most amazing kites, and they were doing loops.  It was so interesting."

I didn't just say "List the things you are interested in," I demonstrated how I would come up with some topics.In future lessons, I explicitly taught how to turn my ideas into an essential question.

"I love kites and the ocean," became my Genius Hour question "How do you build a kite?"

Genius Hour is driven by an essential question that students work each week to solve through research and hands-on exploration.  (Each question cannot be solved by a simple Google search).

Eventually, I even gave a complete Genius Hour presentation.  This way, my students were not caught off-guard by what I expected from a presentation.  I built a simple kite in front of my students, and showed what I had learned on a step-by-step poster.

Genius Hour in Elementary Tip Two:  Narrow Down Presentation Options

I have found that in older grades, students are so excited by the idea that they can choose any way that they want to show what they have learned.  The world is their oyster!

However, when I tried this in Third Grade, most of my class looked at me like a group of deer caught in headlights.  They were absolutely overwhelmed by the number of possibilities.

Should I do a poster?

What about a movie too?

Is a poster better than a movie?

I don't want to do a movie.

What if I code a video game?  I don't know what that means. But maybe my brother does.

Do I have to do all of the options?

I was ready to pull my hair out.  So we had a class meeting.

In our classroom we decided that everyone would have a small poster (I bought the poster board) that showed what they learned, and then they could also have a small model or project if they wanted.

I would suggested narrowing down the options for how Genius Hour can be presented in lower elementary.  As always, allow some students to go 'above and beyond' as they are ready and feel prepared, but don't make this the standard for all students.

Genius Hour in Elementary Tip Three:  Simple Ways to Keep Students Accountable

Genius Hour is only one hour long.

It seems like a lot but it will fly by.  To keep students accountable I used a very simple Work Log where students simply answered the question "What did you do today?"  At times, all they would write down was:

I colored my poster.  And that was enough!  Don't waste valuable time filling in a work log when you could be working on Genius Hour.

Genius Hour in Elementary Tip Four: Check with Parents

This was one of the things that I learned in retrospect.  I allowed students to choose any project of their choice without checking-in at home that each project was o.k. with their families.

It didn't go well for us.

Students assumed that they had access to a computer when they didn't.  Or access to a poster board when they didn't.  Or even a ride to the public library when they didn't.

This year, when my students create their Genius Hour plan, they will also need to have a parent/guardian sign off to make sure that their plan is reasonable.  I don't want to put any undue stress on parents or families, and hope that each project is one that my students can do (mostly) independently.

This years' project plan has a parent approval and suggestion section!  Much needed after last year.  

I've taken all that I learned and created a completed guide for Genius Hour in lower elementary.

It has teaching guides, a day plan, a week-by-week timelines, student worksheets, and rubrics.  Check it out. Hopefully your Genius Hour can run smoothly right from the start!  

Have you ever done Genius Hour in your classroom?  Share your best tip below!