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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2 thoughts on “Genius Hour for All Students: Building a Makerspace in an English Language Arts classroom

  1. OMG, this is such an amazing, detailed description of Genius Hour. I think you have sussed out the parts that we didn’t know when we started. Also, you should send this to Chris Emdin. Because you are giving opportunities to the kids that often never receive it. I have found that they’re actually the most creative ones! Yes to ALL of this!!! Let’s spread the word: #geniushour for ALL Kids!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is the kind of class I would like to be in. I’m excited to hear how the journey continues. I can relate to everything you said about prescribed curriculums and pressure to have students perform well on tests. It’s teachers like you (and Kim), who share your stories and struggles to provide meaning curriculums, that give me hope.

    Liked by 1 person

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