Be Careful of Genius Hour!

Genius Hour has been traveling around the internet a lot lately.  Our sixth grade holds one each trimester.  I think it’s a great chance to challenge our students to learn more, do more, be more.  However, I’m also concerned that it could devolve into “building a sugar cube White House”.

Years ago, I listened to an educational reform speaker who pointed out the folly in “projects”.  Not that projects are bad. I think a good project can challenge our students and help them learn more and show what they’ve learned better than any worksheet.  The caution lies in choosing a good project.

When I was a kid, any time you learned about the government, it culminated in a project that usually involved building a sugar cube White House or Capitol.  While these are fun activities, they don’t really get at what was learned about government.  This type of activity would better represent architecture or teamwork, or even some sort of artwork.  There’s no actual learning about the branches of government, or how a bill becomes a law when you build something with sugar cubes.  In other words, you need to make sure the project involves the type of learning and thinking you want your students to engage in.

I’ve seen a number of Genius Day projects that are more along the lines of the sugar cube building.  We’ve had students bake brownies, make loom band bracelets, and other “fun” projects.  While these are enjoyable, there’s no real learning taking place.  When a student spends the day playing minecraft, it’s certainly fun for him or her, but doesn’t necessarily involve learning.

What I try to do with my students is make sure it’s something valuable.  In the classroom, time is gold.  I do my best to spend it wisely.  Something a student would spend time at a sleepover doing doesn’t seem like something they’re going to learn from in my classroom.

For our second trimester Genius Day, we gave a focus to the work:  we had been reading about Thomas Edison, so the students had to make a list of three problems that needed to be solved, then invent something to solve them.  While the invention didn’t need to actually be inventable that day, it needed to be in the realm of possibility.  A flying car would be acceptable, but a time machine would not.  We ended up with some wonderful ideas!

We had students invent a Roomba like snowplow (uses the technology involved in a Roomba to plow your driveway), a heated bike, and a reminder app to help students remember to turn in their homework.  All of these items are possible to build, given current technology (but all of them were represented with a drawing).

We also required them to get a “patent” from the “patent office” (their teacher) and any inventions that had already been invented were denied.  As we looked at their proposals, we tried to consider whether it was truly something new, or if it had been done before.  As we explained to our students, the iPod wasn’t a totally new idea – we already had music we could record and take with us, it was a new tweak on the idea.  Or, looked at another way, the lightbulb merely improved on the candles and gas lamps of the time.

I was really happy with the way the inventions turned out, and the students learned a lot about a wide variety of topics.  They had to research machines and technology to try to learn how to create the invention they had come up with.  It definitely made them think differently, as well.  Asking them to think of a problem to be solved changed how they approached the day.

Do you do Genius Hour with your students?

Inspired by Ellen and Fuel Up to Play 60

The Fuel Up to Play 60 program and Ellen have come together to inspire me to have a dance party with my students.

First, a little background: Ellen starts each afternoon’s show with a dance with the audience.  Nothing special, just moving to the beat with the audience.  It raises the energy for everyone and puts them in a happy mood.

Fuel Up to Play 60 is a program for schools designed to help students eat more healthy foods and move more.  The 60 refers to 60 minutes of activity a day.  This year, the program has been focused on dancing and school breakfast.

It occurs to me that my students could really use an energetic beginning to class.  Particularly the morning group.  It takes them a while to wake up and start participating.  The first half hour or so of class is always slow going.  I’ve tried brain breaks, but that doesn’t always do the trick.

Starting Monday, I’m going to pick a song and we’ll have a few minutes to dance at the beginning of the hour.  I figure I’ll do it like Ellen does and get the blood pumping, then stop and go on with class.

Possible songs: Happy by Pherell Williams, Best Day of My Life by American Authors, I Gotta Feelin’ by Black Eyed Peas, Good Time by Owl City and Carly Rae Jepsen.  I’m sure the kids will suggest some, too, as we go along.

best day of my life Good Time I Gotta Feelin Pharrell_Williams_-_HappyHave you done any dance parties with your students?  Would you consider revving them up at the beginning of the hour, or do you spend your time calming them down?  

Picture Book Tournament

After seeing the idea of holding a picture book tournament during my travels around the internet, I knew this was something I wanted to try with my students.  You can see some other blog posts about it at: and at:

First, I had to collect the picture books.  Fortunately, I have a LARGE collection of my own (can we say I have a problem?).  I sorted through the books I have and pulled out the best examples.  I tried to make sure I had a variety of genre and authors.  I also tried to have multiple books from the same authors, so they could compare.  Believe it or not, I ended up with 32 titles!    Image

Next, I decided what reading strategies I wanted my students to practice as we went through this tournament.  Since it’s a review week in Reading Street, the primary strategies the book has them reviewing are “Author’s Purpose” and “Cause and Effect”.  I created a worksheet for them to fill out which would help them analyze the books they read.  Not wanting to have them get bogged down in the worksheet, I limited it to three books.  They’ll be reading many more, but will only fill out the boxes for three.


I also had to find a bracket to use – enter the internet!  There’s a great site which allows you to create a printable bracket with as many teams as you like:

Deciding 20 books would be a reasonable number to use, I made a bracket with 20 slots.  Image

As I explained the tournament, I brought in quite a bit of real world knowledge, since most of the kids didn’t know much about how March Madness basketball works.  We talked about rankings, seeds and byes.  Between the picture books and the sports analogies, I had most of my kids hooked.  They were champing at the bit, ready to start reading.

Once I handed out the books, there was a short amount of conversation as they exclaimed over some of the books, then, silence reigned.  I didn’t have to tell them to be quiet or to read – they just did!  For an hour!

They also did an amazing job on the analysis worksheet.  I never told them what sort of quality I was looking for, but they gave it to me and then some!  The answers they wrote down were well written, carefully thought out and very complete.  I was blown away by their work.

At the end of the hour, they filled out their top ten on the ranking paper.DSCN6747

After school, I sat down with their rankings and started figuring out which books made the tournament and how high to seed them.  After some consideration, I decided to just list the votes on a blank sheet and see where it took me (it basically ended up making a stem and leaf plot of the data). When I was finished, it was clear which books were the top seeds.  I crossed out the 12 books with the lowest number/ranking of votes and started filling in the brackets.  Interestingly, several books didn’t make it at all in one class, but had strong showing in the other.

Day 2, I helped the students fill in their brackets, which led to a discussion of choosing basketball brackets based on the color of the uniform or the cuteness of the mascot.  Since they weren’t necessarily familiar with all the books, they had to use some other method to choose.  We then did a mini review about cause and effect.  Today’s task involved filling out a paper with three cause/effect situations in one of the books.  They desperately wanted to read all the books that made it into the tournament, so, once again, it was silent in my room.

At the end of the hour, we started our voting.  I am lucky enough to have clickers, so they used the clickers and voted true for one book, or false for the other.  As I announced the winner in each match up, cheers would go up.  At one point, one of the students commented “Well, my bracket is shot.”

I’ve been updating the posters on the wall outside my door and it’s been interesting seeing boys study it carefully and discuss which one they would choose in the matches.

DSCN6743I would definitely do this again.  The students have been very excited to discuss the books, and are reading more than I’ve seen them read in a while.  Unfortunately, time kept it fairly short this time.  I would prefer to have more time for debating the books before we vote, but I only ended up with 3 days to complete the tournament, although I was able to use 90 minutes each of those three days, which helped.  Even with a shortened time frame, it was well worth it!

Have you used tournament style bracket lessons before?  What do you do?