Genius Hour Part II

We’re off and rolling with 20% time in the classroom! My favorite exchange with a student about a Genius Hour project has been this one:

Her: “So, am I just planning this community fundraiser or am I actually DOING it?”
Me: “You are DOING it. Planning, scheduling, promoting, booking, EVERYTHING. If this is Your 20% time, You are making it HAPPEN.”
Her: “YESSSS! I was afraid we were just planning it like a simulation…but if we really get to do it, I’m STOKED! Can I text my mom and tell her?!”

After my initial announcement to the class, (one that stemmed from a last-minute moment of excited inspiration) some questions from students helped me realize that I needed to take the weekend to do some more exploration. I came back Monday armed with resources to help further explain the concept for students, and to provide some semblance of structure for those who needed it. I found some good inspiration here, and borrowed/adapted a couple of Google Docs to share with students. (Thank you to all of the folks at !) This brainstorming guide definitely helped some students who weren’t initially inspired or who were having a difficult time coming up with ideas. After whole class and one/one discussion, brainstorming, and sharing, students came back the next day fired up with ideas, so much so that it was difficult to get them all to stop talking at once! Following is a list of some of the projects they selected. Because this is a theater class filled with kids who are interested in the arts, many of their projects involve writing and or performing.

  • Write a play set during the Holocaust, cast it, and produce it for the school
  • Write an original song for the violin that could accompany the play mentioned above
  • Write and publish a cookbook that includes my original recipes and my grandmother’s recipes
  • Learn to play my new guitar using a self-teaching iPad app. Perform at an open mic.
  • Organize a community talent show to raise money for a local charity
  • Start a literary magazine at school
  • Learn to knit and make a scarf for my mother’s birthday
  • Organize an open mic as a fundraiser during Activity Period. Also write an original song to play and sing.
  • Write and record a TED talk as a recruiting tool to start a TED Club at school
  • Create an a cappella group, research songs and techniques, practice and perform for the school
  • Write, film and publish a “Life with Lyrics” video similar to this one.
  • Research and build a working rocket
A student drew this picture to explain aspects of his rocket design

A student drew this picture to explain aspects of his rocket design

I hope that we can keep the momentum going through the grading period. I look forward to reflecting on their progress!
See my first post, here.


The glamorous life of a teacher on a Snow Day

Ah, Facebook. The Pinterest for uninformed opinions. This has been an especially brutal winter in the midwest, and the brutality (and banality) of comments on Facebook are proportionate to the windchill factors. Take this gem posted by a “friend” on the last day our district cancelled on a -22 degree wind chill day:
“Sure wish I was a teacher. Once again, they get to stay home, sleep and still earn money while the rest of us have to work for a living.”

This person cannot have children. If he does, then he has no regard for the safety of children who walk to school and are at risk for windburn, frostbite, or just slipping on ice and breaking a bone. Either that, or he believes the Perfect World myth that all parents ensure that their children leave the house protected by the winter suit of armor- gloves, hat, scarf, coat, heavy boots, etc. The reality is that many kids arrive at school with not even a coat for protection, let alone gloves (and forget about a hot breakfast!)

But this comment did not mention the students. This comment (and many others in my feed) was directed at the Lucky, Lazy, Leeches – the Teachers. Obviously we spend our snow days snuggled under blankets, sleeping until noon, and munching cookies as we watch the afternoon soaps. That kind of fiction is fun to propagate, but read on for a glimpse into the TRUE glamorous world of a typical snow day.

  1. We get the call. “THANK GOD,” we think. But not for the reasons you think we think it. We’re thinking “Thank God! Now I can…”
  2. Finish grading 140 argumentative essays
  3. Complete the state-mandated lesson plan template for every class this week that includes 6 categories and involves thoroughly explaining learning activities, the rationale for choose these methods, the specific ways we will differentiate our approach in order to meet students and their various learning styles/abilities/disabilities/skills/behaviors, the exact content standards our lesson addresses, the assessments (both formative and summative) we have developed to gauge their understanding and learning. (I’m leaving out a few more categories here simply because I’m exhausted from typing.)
  4. Continue reading the stack of non-fiction books we purchased with our own money in order to assess their suitability for incorporating more NF into the curriculum as mandated by the Common Core standards.
  5. Spend an hour participating in a Webinar to enhance our knowledge of instructional strategies and help to meet the required six semester hours of credit we need in order to renew our licenses.
  6. Evaluate students’ mid-term SLO test data and pray that their progress thus far will ensure that when we are graded on the new, state-mandated evaluation instrument, their test scores will deem us to be at least “Proficient.”
  7. Read the educational blogs and Twitter feeds that comprise our PLN (Personal Learning Networks) in order to find and exchange fresh ideas for the classroom.
  8. Email our colleagues about the resources, ideas, and tools we find through our reading that we think would be beneficial for their classes as well.
  9. Experiment with a technology tool we are unfamiliar with, but that teachers in our fields in another school are raving about. It might take an hour or more to figure it out, but if we think it could enhance our students’ learning, it’s worth it.
  10. Actually Communicate with our students. Thanks to the flexibility provided by tools such as Edmodo, Moodle, and Remind101 and yes, even email and texting, we can engage with our students even on a snow day. We post project due-date reminders on Edmodo, answer emailed questions from students, read and critique papers shared with us through a Google document, or create and post videos explaining project options to our class website.
  11. Spend some quality time with OUR OWN children.
  12. And if time permits…exercise!

In short, if a teacher posts to Facebook, “YAY! SNOW DAY!” The subtext of that post is “THANK GOD I GET A WHOLE DAY TO CATCH UP ON THE WORK I’M USUALLY DOING FROM 7-10p.m. MOST NIGHTS OF THE WEEK!”

Oh, and Ditto for a Sick Day.

Unleashing Genius Hour

Over the past few months I have been intrigued by tweets and posts from educators who have integrated Google’s concept of Genius Hour into their classrooms. Google used to allow (apparently, it has put the kibosh on this) its engineers to spend 20% of their work week working on pet projects. The thinking was that allowing people time to pursue their passions would increase productivity.  When the policy was in its heyday, Google claimed that 50% of its innovative projects were created from this time, including Gmail, Google Talk, Google News, and AdSense.


One of my focuses for the new year is to do more to help students “unpack” their individuality and creativity from what has come to be seen as the “confines” of Common Core standards. (Unpopular Opinion Alert:  standards are only as “confining” as the methods teachers select to incorporate them into learning experiences for students.) So when we returned from Christmas break, the first thing I did was survey my theater students about what activities, units of study, etc. they would like to explore during 2nd semester.

Responses to the survey were varied and included: “Study and create performance poetry; Write and produce a play; Read Shakespeare; Anything but Shakespeare, Read a modern play; Write a musical; Watch a musical; Learn stage makeup techniques; Perform another monologue; Write an original monologue; Direct a play; Film a Living with Lyrics video; Perform Reader’s Theater for the elementary students; More improvisation; Less improvisation…”  

When considering their responses, I realized that my students are amazing, talented, and creative, and I owe it to them to allow them to explore their passions, regardless of whether there is time to “fit it in” this semester. Thus, at 2:42 a.m. (or, what often manifests itself as MY genius hour) I decided I would pitch 20% time to my students. After sharing the video below, we were off and running! Students immediately began buzzing about their interests.

“This is SO weird. I told my mom I wanted to create my own YouTube channel for my original songs, but I have like NO time…does this mean I can work on this on Fridays?”

“I’ve written plays before, but didn’t get to do anything with them. If I write a play, and it’s good, can our class put it on for the school?!”

“I just bought a guitar and plan on self-teaching with an App I found, but with my new job, I don’t have time… can I use Genius Time to learn?”
ME: “Yes, and then how are you going to share with or impact others?”
HIM: “___said she wanted her project to be organizing a talent show for charity…My goal could be to master two songs that I could play at that!”

“I would like to organize a talent show or open mic for charity”

The only parameters I set up are as follows:

1. Each Friday would be devoted to Genius Hour projects
2. Students are responsible for arranging for what ever items they need in order to work on their projects
3. Students must complete this initial Google Form explaining the nature of their project
4. I did not require that their Genius Hour project be related to theater; however, nearly everyone selected something that can be related to the curriculum, which is great!

After the presentation in each period, students erupted in a flurry of cross-conversation. A few stayed after class to talk about their ideas, many emailed questions, one sent a link in a Google Doc and asked for my feedback. Literally HOURS after introducing the concept. My answer to all of their questions was, “Of course! You just have to find a way to make it happen.”

I can’t wait to see what they accomplish!

Additional resources for Genius Hour in the classroom

Nurturing humanity while mastering standards

Spread kindness http://www. spread

My high school theater students just finished one of the most difficult and terrifying assignments in our class: choosing, analyzing, memorizing, and performing a monologue. In some cases, with results less stellar than what they hoped to achieve. There are always challenges with such a unit. In the past I have struggled to motivate students who simply refused to try it. I’ve offered tissues to students who burst into tears at the idea of performing a monologue. And worst of all, I have had classes that made me nearly nauseous fearing that despite my best efforts to prevent it, a student might decimate the confidence of another student by hollering mean-spirited comments. Once the words are out there, the damage is done.

This year’s monologue unit was different; however. Early on, my fears of possible hurtful comments were allayed. And as I watched these students face their fears with courage and grace, I ended each day feeling increasingly in awe of their hearts.

Conquering the fear of performing in front of peers is a powerful challenge. What I learned this year, however, is that the more powerful part of this assignment was the quality of the SUPPORT students offered each other. High school students sometimes get a bad rep in the media for being bullies, i.e. “kids can be so mean,” and an assignment that requires students to lay everything bare in front of an audience certainly provides fodder for possible ridicule.

To be fair, I requested that students only share feedback if they could find something positive to highlight. (The constructive criticism would come from me.) But this can yield another type of hurtful result – the student who gets ZERO feedback from peers after others have been showered with praise.

While it is true that students can indeed be mean and that they make poor choices, it is also true that they can surprise you with their level of sensitivity and kindness. Fortunately, the latter occurred in their responses to the performances. Perhaps it was the bond that comes from facing fears together. More likely, though, is that there are a couple of strong leaders in each class who spoke up quickly and provided specific, positive feedback to EVERY person. This type of response soon spread to other “reviewers” in the room. When it came time for feedback, hands shot up all over the room. Even in the instances when performers stumbled badly or looked at a script hanging from a shaking because they hadn’t mastered the memorization, no one laughed or ridiculed. In these situations, feedback was a simple as “you had good volume,” or as special as, “you really showed resilience; I’m not sure I could have started over after drawing a blank, but you got right back at it. That takes concentration.” (Yes, students actually identified “resilience” in their peers!) Best of all, there was always more than one comment.

It is difficult to adequately re-create the positively charged atmosphere of the classroom in a blog post. Suffice it to say that witnessing students demonstrate the characteristics of emotional intelligence, kindness, empathy, and support, even when the situation made it difficult to do so, was much more beautiful and important to me than watching the students who nailed their presentation and demonstrated mastery of unit standards. (And there really were some amazing performances!)


Holiday Haul for the HHS library!

Santa visited the HHS library over break in the form of a friend, librarian, and avid YA enthusiast who donated FIFTEEN boxes of fantastic YA literature! My friend has heard me vent frustration over the years that I don’t really have a library budget (literally, in ten years there has NEVER been a library budget or even a ballpark figure on what funds are available to me on a year-2-year basis. Ordering materials is a shot in the dark, which makes thoughtful planning next to impossible.) So when she was cleaning out her basement library, she decided to share the Reading Wealth!

My students and I can’t thank you enough, Brandi! They will be thrilled to actually get new materials during the school year!

I made the above video using the new-to-me tool, MoveNote, in order to advertise to students on the library Facebook page. Give us a like at



I posted the following on my library blog for students. My goal for the new year is to encourage students to Tell Their Story. Through art, photography, writing, music, actions, and ideas. 

PictureWe all have a story to tell. Each of our stories is unique, and each is also important. I encourage all of you to find a way to Tell Your Story this year. Maybe you want to continue the story you created last year, or maybe you want to start a new chapter. Maybe you even want to close the book on last year’s story and start from scratch, on a blank canvas that’s just waiting to come alive with fresh content. The good news is, YOU are in charge! Every day is an opportunity to begin a new chapter!

As we move into 2014, I challenge each of you to tell your story, whether figuratively or literally, through your actions, your choices, and your ideas. Additionally, I encourage you to share your stories with other Bulldogs, to foster an atmosphere of community, collaboration, and understanding.

Ready to get started? There are several inspiring tools and movements devoted to helping others find and tell their stories.  For instance, you might find that rather than making New Year’s resolutions, you would prefer to concentrate on One Word or concept that embodies something you would like to improve upon, expand or begin this year. Head over to My One Word and select yours. You can share your word and the reasons you chose it with the community there, keep it to yourself, or share it with the Bulldog community by using the hashtag #MyOneWordHHS. After careful consideration, I chose the word FOCUS.  I used PicMonkey to add text to an image I found at and set it as my desktop background to remind me that I need to focus on my work, on being fully present in my interactions with colleagues, students, friends and family, and finally, to focus on achieving small goals throughout the year.


Another fun way to tell your story is by participating in the 365 Photo project. Get inspiration and monthly thematic ideas here. You can share your photos on the Project356 site as well as on Instagram or Twitter. To share within the Bulldog community, use the hashtag #my365HHS This could be a great way to explore your creativity while documenting important moments or inspiration in your life.Finally, if you would prefer to literally tell your story by writing it, there are several tools that can assist you. If writer’s block is your enemy, download this free e-book with 365 Writing Prompts for each day of the year. If you feel compelled to do some autobiography exploration, this site offers several tips. And if you prefer a more structured community that will provide feedback and encouragement, try the SMASH356 initiative. According to their site:

#smash365 is an online initiative and 365 day writing challenge to help you smash the fears, resistance, self-doubt & procrastination that keep you from being the artist, entrepreneur, creator & genius you are meant to be.

The rest is up to you. Click, Write, Tweet, Explore, Contemplate, Create and Share and Revise.

Your Story. Your Terms. What could be more glorious?