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…

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

  1. Awesome, I love genius hour! I’ve done it for two years with my third grade students, and they amazed me every time. Still trying to decide how to bring it up to seventh grade, so this was really helpful! For now, we’re sticking with weekly Poetry Friday time, which give kids a chance to explore and create poetry in their own ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is so awesome that you do Genius Hour with third graders! I’d love to hear more about Poetry Friday time. And I will definitely be writing more posts about genius hour to share my experiences.


  2. Michelle, you are amazing to pilot this important initiative. You’ve documented it thoroughly so hopefully others will be courageous and do it. I think ELA classrooms are the perfect place for GH, truth be told. I also think you should submit this post as evidence for TeachPoint. You are my most inspiring colleague EVER. Woot!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is amazing! I would love to see something like this offered across the school – maybe this is what community meeting could look like. Or senior projects for ALL kids. I don’t know. What a gift you have given your students. Love love love!


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