Genius Hour for All Students: Building a Makerspace in an English Language Arts classroom

Genius hour and constructionist approaches to learning is essential for all students, but especially those for whom traditional structures of schooling simply do not work.

At the NCTE 2016 Don Graves Breakfast exploring the theme of credo, my colleague Dr. Kim Parker spoke passionately and eloquently about Zeyvon, “a young man who is black, brilliant, and bored….a writer and reader for whom school seemed to be increasingly less designed.” After Zeyvon disappeared from Kim’s class without explanation, she later learns that “he has been assigned to an out of school placement program, joining other boys who are likely as black, brilliant, and bored as he.” Not surprisingly, our Zeyvons and his peers are the same brilliant students of color who are underrepresented in the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) disciplines. Makerspaces are still predominantly white and male.

As Dr. Parker leads the charge to create a classroom space “where kids like Zeyvon can read and write in ways that matter to them, from to letters to the local police department reminding them that black lives matter, too, and that wearing their hoodies is not a crime, to Tweets to favorite authors thanking them for books that are just for him, to books that affirm, reflect, and extend his existence as a brilliant black boy,” I applied for and won a FOCRLS Faculty Innovation Grant to create a makerspace in my English class.

In the era of high stakes testing though, innovative student-centered practices like genius hour and maker ed activities are often seen as “extra.” Many teachers lament the class time they are required to devote to test prep. I’ve taught at schools where teachers must follow a prescribed curriculum and adhere to a strict schedule of practice MCAS open response and long comp, a practice that rewards compliance and kills creativity and critical thinking. In my 15 years of teaching so far, I have yet to hear a former student report back that the MEAL paragraph structure was transformative, made them love learning, and came in handy in the pursuit of their current passions. Every year, I have to undo the damage of the 5 paragraph essay structure on my students’ ability to think through complex issues and express their unique voices. (Incidentally, here is Tricia Ebarvia’s excellent teachable alternatives to the 5 paragraph essay.)

Students who struggle academically are less likely to have access to high quality and engaging learning experiences in part  because teachers, who are often scrutinized for standardized test performance results, feel they can’t afford to spend class time on “extra” stuff. Some teachers are uncomfortable with the open-ended nature of genius hour and maker activities. Others worry about how they will justify this approach to their evaluators, who may not be familiar with how maker ed fits into non-STEAM disciplines.

But meaningful learning activities that promote student agency, creativity, and problem-solving skills are not extra. They are essential. Choice in reading and writing and genius hour are far more effective in producing students who can think critically and communicate their ideas effectively. As my colleague Kim Parker says, English class is a great place to do genius hour. Indeed, English class is an ideal place to engage in student-centered, project-based, interdisciplinary learning.

Using the lessons learned from the pilot with my honors English 11 students, this semester I am excited to bring genius hour into my college prep (CP) English 11 classes. Given that some students in the fall semester struggled with finding something they are passionate about, I decided to incorporate maker ed activities with the goal of  reconnecting students to the importance of play in creative problem-solving and innovation. (See the Makerspace Playbook.)

To give you a glimpse into my classroom, here is some demographic data:

Spring 2017 students in my CP English 11 classes Fall 2016 students in my honors English 11 classes (GH pilot) 2016-17 Schoolwide 2016-17 Statewide
African American 48% 20% 30.3% 8.9%
Asian 21% 16% 11.9% 6.7%
Latinx 21% 2% 13.5% 19.4%
White 10% 62% 38.9% 61.3%
English Language Learner 7% 0% 5.4% 9.5%
Students with disabilities 55% 7% 16.6% 17.4%

My school runs on a block schedule with semester long classes. Each class is 80 minutes. I devote one day a week to genius hour.

My classroom is a converted teacher’s lounge (real estate is a hot commodity around here) that is too small for a class of 24 students, their teachers, and our beloved instructional technology specialist, Ms. Hart. In a room better suited to a class size of 12, we are constantly bumping up against each other and saying “excuse me” as we ask students to step aside so that we can move around the room to facilitate. On the plus side, I have a sink that comes in handy for everyday classroom needs and has been a welcome bonus for maker activities. In addition, I have cabinets for storage space. The space is not ideal, but we make it work.

To prepare for our first genius hour session, I invited students to reconnect to their childhood by responding to this prompt in their writer’s notebook

What did you love to do as a child? Describe a favorite toy or activity from childhood in as much detail as possible. What did you love about it?

Next we read and discussed an article on the importance of play and creativity in problem-solving. You can find the article and assignment here.

Here’s what I’m learning so far about creating a makerspace in an English classroom.

You don’t need to be an expert. As teachers it can be hard for many of us to let go of the need to be the sage on stage. The sooner you can dispossess yourself of that mindset, the better. Curiosity and basic problem solving skills are all you really need to get started. I’ve only experimented with paper circuits and MakeyMakey for a few hours more than my students. Some of them have more Scratch experience than me. They are better musicians and artists. Their genius inspires me. I tell them I’m learning alongside them. If something comes up that I can’t answer on the spot, I model how to do more research and encourage them to poke around the internet together.

Build a network of allies. There is no need to go solo on any of this. Here are my co-conspirators:

Dr. Kim Parker, my colleague in the English department who said we should try genius hour. Everyone should find at least one colleague who is game for trying new things together. While we don’t have a common prep time, we make time at lunch to see each other to compare notes, plan, tweak, commiserate, and celebrate. (If you’re a newbie teacher, finding time to eat lunch with colleagues can make all the difference. Most beginning teachers feel the need to use lunch to prep, photocopy, grade, etc. I get it, but the time spent on recharging with an inspiring colleague will do far more for you than hiding in your classroom to get work done.)

Nicole Hart, instructional technology specialist and film-maker. Enlist the help of instructional technology staff. Nicole and I meet weekly to run through the activities and learn as much as we can about it together. She provides logistical, technological, and moral support. Nicole also facilitates genius hour sessions with me.

Ingrid Gustafson, instructional technology specialist, maker ed enthusiast, coordinator of the Boston Scratch Educator Meetup. Ingrid gave me a TON of resources for writing the grant to create a makerspace in my classroom and is always sharing tools and resources with me.

Dr. Susan Klimczak, education coordinator of the Learn2Teach/Teach2Learn program at the South End Tech Center at Tent City in Boston. Susan has been doing this for many years, so she is a wealth of information. Reach out to local Fab Labs, universities, and local organizations like Black Girls Code to connect with people who are passionate about what they do.

Classroom volunteers. In my current classes, an ideal facilitator to participant ratio is 1:6. This will be different depending on the classroom setup you have and the needs of your students. I’m currently at 2:6 in my morning class and 2:23 in my afternoon class. When recruiting volunteers, I look for people who enjoy working with teenagers, are curious, enjoy trying new things, and have a sense of humor. STEAM background is a bonus but not required. I’m currently in the process of recruiting more volunteers, particularly those who reflect the diversity of my students. Because representation matters. Here is an article on how to build an inclusive makerspace.

Next up: Genius Hour Kick-Off… Paper Circuits in English Class.

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Genius Hour in my English Language Arts (ELA) classroom…what I learned from the pilot

What would you study or create if you were given the gift of time, resources, and support to pursue any interest of your choice?

Genius hour is modeled after the concept of “20% time” made popular by the 3M Corporation and Google, in which employees are given 20% of their work week to pursue passion projects of their own choosing, resulting in some of the most innovative and lucrative products widely known around the world such as Post-It notes and Gmail.

Makerspaces and constructionist approaches (see Seymour Papert) are all the rage in STEAM disciplines. As Mia Kuartei notes,

“The school makerspace is a constructionist place for students to give life, shape, function, and purpose to their ideas; they utilize knowledge, skills, and tools from a wide range of content areas and experiences.”

What if students had opportunities to learn by doing/making/creating in English class? A makerspace in an English classroom provides opportunities for authentic, project-based, student-centered learning. Genius hour engages students in interdisciplinary learning. At the same time, students hone the skills laid out in the common core standards, such as critical reading, writing for a variety of purposes and audiences, research, revision, speaking and listening, collaboration, and publication.

I am inspired by Dr. Susan Klimczak’s work at the Learn2Teach/Teach2Learn program at the South End Fab Lab at Tent City, a program that serves Boston youth, particularly those who are underrepresented in STEM learning environments, and brings hands-on maker ed activities into community-based organizations all over the city. I have witnessed firsthand how transformative learning can be when students are empowered to make choices and explore their interests, are exposed to a variety of technologies, and participate in a community of fellow makers, enthusiasts, experts, and mentors.

Following my hunch that genius hour in the ELA classroom would benefit all students, whether they have found success and/or a sense of belonging in a traditional ELA classroom or not, last fall I piloted Genius Hour with two sections of honors English 11 students (juniors).

My school runs on a block schedule with semester long classes. I set aside every Friday for Genius Hour. Working independently or in student-selected teams, students explore a topic they are curious and passionate about, formulate a critical inquiry question, conduct research to learn more about their topic, visit/interview experts and other enthusiasts, prototype and create a product, and share their learning with others through a Ted-talk style presentation at the end of the semester.

My goals for genius hour are:

  1. to empower students to be active, self-directed learners
  2. to engage and motivate students in learning that is tailored to their own areas of interest
  3. to use design-thinking process to solve problems
  4. to use creative thinking skills
  5. to collaborate with peers and experts in areas of interest
  6. to communicate their learning using digital multimedia story telling skills
  7. to learn from errors and use “failure” as an opportunity for improving designs

Here is a sampling of genius hour projects from the pilot:

  • Design and offer a free ballet class open to students of all backgrounds and body types and create a video documentary of the class
  • Build a working beehive for under $75 and create a how-to website for urban bee-keeping enthusiasts
  • Create a campaign to raise awareness of the Syrian civil war and raise funds for mobile clinics for Aleppo evacuees (this youth genius raised over $4000 in one weekend and has to date raised $10,000)
  • Use hand tools to build a seaworthy miniature boat
  • Write a collection of humor essays exploring identity as a teenager coming to terms with sexual orientation
  • Engage in student activism with the goal of bringing free menstrual supplies to school bathrooms

As part of their final exam, I asked students to reflect on their Genius Hour learning experiences. In their words:

I liked the ability to choose a topic and put it into my own hands. I liked that there wasn’t constant teacher surveillance, and a lot of trust was put in us to create successful projects. And as a whole, I think everyone succeeded.”

“My takeaways are that we kids are actually very bright people. There were so many projects I never expected to have been made. The fact that everyone very successfully made their project I was shocked but it was amazing. At first I wasn’t very inspired but I actually enjoyed it and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.”

“There are several takeaways I have from Genius Hour. First of all that students really can have power. In this case, it really was thanks to the student pressure put on the school committee that there was unanimous agreement that this motion pass. Another takeaway was something I learned in the process of writing the article for this project. Learning that it was really important for men to care about issues like this is extremely important. There are so many problems in the world, and male apathy towards female equality creates many more. This Genius Hour was an incredible teaching experience and I learned more doing this project and I felt more passionately about doing this project than anything else in high school and that was a very powerful experience for me.”

“I think Genius Hour was a great way to do something that you wouldn’t normally get to work on in class. I liked that we picked what we were interested in, and weren’t given a specific topic to work on. It was sort of open-ended, and I thought that really worked, because everyone is interested in different things and in the end, the presentations were more interesting because everyone presented different things. I think it is something more classes should do, because it also helps with public speaking at the end and being more open in classes. Most times only half the class contributes to conversation, so it gave everyone the opportunity to share.”

“Your really get out what you put into Genius Hour, and you could really tell what groups REALLY cared about what they decided to focus on. I loved working on the Genius Hour project not only did it give us a nice way to end the week, but it also let individuals focus on topics that they were passionate about.”

“I was really impressed overall with the topics my classmates created over the course of the semester, because each project was so unique and targeted different issues in the world that we never talk about in school. It felt like I was really learning something tangible, and I felt proud of my classmates that they felt so passionately about each issue that they presented to us. It was the only class I’ve taken at CRLS where I could chose a topic I cared about and really explore it. And share with my class. And educate people about something that they might actually care about after we are out of high school. It’s important to me to talk about the real world, and not in a math application problem, and not in some dumb MCAS prompt, but the real world, and how it works, and how we are going to learn and make it better. This is exactly what this project gave to me, and I am really grateful for that. I am really grateful for the opportunity to change a policy, and make a change in my community.”

My takeaways from the pilot?

First and foremost, youth are geniuses and they know what’s up! Ask them what needs fixing in their school and communities, and listen. Really listen. 

Initially (and in some cases over longer periods) some may claim they don’t have any interests or passions. Don’t give up on them. It’s no surprise that students who are used to a top-down, prescribed curriculum in their various siloed disciplines of traditional schooling may at first find this experience disconcerting. It’s not uncommon for students to be told what to read, when to read it, what to write, how to write it, how to sit, when to eat, etc.

To inspire students, I shared many, many examples of youth created movements, products, and experiences. I allowed them lots of room for exploration. Yes, this can sometimes feel like they aren’t really doing anything, but I decided early on that I would allow students a lot of room to learn from failure. As teachers, this can hard for many of us. But it’s an essential part of the process.

Finding the sweet spot of just the right amount of structure and guidance is key. I tracked student progress by reading their weekly blog entries and prioritized conferencing time based on their entries. I gave guidelines on benchmarks to aim for from week to week and then met with individuals and groups to give feedback, troubleshoot, motivate, redirect, and praise.

Build a community of learners. I began each session with a sharing out opportunity. Sometimes I asked for volunteers, other times I picked a particular group or individual with whom I had a conversation that I thought was important for others to overhear and asked them to talk through a challenge or impasse.

Help students find learning opportunities in failure. Schools do not do this enough. A few months into their project, Abby and Soliana told me that they thought their project was too simple and boring. I asked them how they arrived at that conclusion. They explained that they set out to make a stain-proof shirt that could withstand ketchup spills with a wipe-and-go technology.  But in the process they discovered that stain-resistant technology doesn’t work like that. They were left with stain removers found in cleaning product aisles or stain-resistant sprays for upholstery. They were in the middle of creating a poster board frequently found in middle school science fairs that test different laundry detergents on different stains. After our conferencing time, they decided instead to create a video documenting their learning process while framing failure as a learning opportunity. The result was an engaging video with Oscar-worthy performances that sparked an amazing class discussion on how failure is regarded in academic contexts. Abby wrote in her reflection,

From Genius Hour I learned that for everything that you’re trying to accomplish in life, before you succeed, you will fail so many times and that’s ok. We’re not perfect and there comes a time where we all makes mistakes, fail, and get back up to succeed.”

As a teacher, this may be the most important win of all.

This semester, with the generous support of a FOCRLS Faculty Innovation Grant, I am taking the lessons learned in my Genius Hour pilot with the honors classes to my college prep (lower track) level classes. (Tracking does a huge disservice to student learning; I will save my thoughts on this for a future entry.) Stay tuned for how all of this plays out in my CP classes…

Ally Theater

“You are safe here.”

“You belong.”

These are signs I pass on my daily morning walk with my dog.

Puh-leez. <eyeroll> <side eye> <eyeroll> <more side eye>

Back in December hateful graffiti was found in several bathrooms of our self-proclaimed progressive public high school  in Cambridge, MA. Although admin did not share the actual contents of the graffiti with faculty, my students showed me images of the swastika and handwritten red letters referencing “Trump” and “southern rituals” that were widely circulated on social media.

Since then, signs like the above have been posted around the school and in the community.

I’m suspicious of signs that announce a benevolent allyship. I’m not impressed by people who think that posting a sign is action. It smacks of performance and a white-centered desire for allyship cookies. What a privilege it is to believe in the dream that announcing “you belong” means we are good people.

I think of a student who wrote about her fear of being pushed into the subway tracks every time she rides the train. She is Muslim. She is Black. She wears a hijab. She stoically shared with me that she has mapped out escape routes in every train station, in the event of being pushed into the tracks, just in case.

This student shared her story in response to the safety pin allyship theater.

So you want to be an ally? Just the other day, as a trustee in my condominium association, I received an email complaint from a resident in which she repeatedly makes anti-Muslim, anti-Black, sexist, racist, and xenophobic comments. Not one of the other trustees called it out for what it was. And yet, I’m pretty sure my neighbors fancy themselves allies. Some even marched for women.

In school today, at a mandatory training session for faculty, we were asked what steps we could each take to actively combat hate speech and bigotry in our school community.

Someone tossed out, “Encourage students to say hello to one another.”

At this point, a colleague of color shared her story. Although she is not new to the district, this is her first year in the high school. She noted how common it is for colleagues to pass her every day in the hallway and never greet her. So, before we can tell students to greet one another, the adults of the building need to practice this themselves.

Until I see more colleagues take action to decolonize the curriculum, until the school demolishes the de facto segregation along college prep/honors tracks, until hiring and retaining more faculty of color becomes a reality, I’m not giving any cookies to people who post signs.