**Originally posted on Profa Baros's Classroom Blog
"How did you know that?"
"I Googled it."
The first student had asked a fairly complicated question out loud ("Do babies dream?"), and within a few seconds, the second student started telling her about the REM cycles of babies, something he knew nothing about just a few moments beforehand. That's the beauty of Genius Hour.
Though I officially introduced Genius Hour yesterday, we built up to it throughout our first week of school. About a week or so before this class started, I realized I was going to have to change my approach as a teacher. Most of my students in this "Latino Culture" class would likely have much more experience than I with Latino culture as they would likely be Latinos themselves (sure enough, most of my students do speak Spanish a grew up in "Latino" families and communities). At the same time, I realized that the driving force behind Genius hour and all learning are questions. I'm beginning to believe that the most effective learning happens when a question is present, whether explicitly or implicitly. (For example, in a regular Spanish class, students are often wondering "How do you say....?" or "What does ...... mean?", even if they don't actually ask those questions) If students are forming these questions, then they will better appreciate the answers. If students can form their own questions, they will be more motivated to find the answers. If students are finding the answers on their own, they will likely remember them.
Want evidence? Check out this TED talk from Sugata Mitra about the Child-Driven education:
As a result of my insights into students forming questions and the above TED talk, I decided to restructure my class around these questions. In turn, this modeled what I wanted students to do on their own when we got to Genius Hour, though they didn't know it at the time. On the first day, after doing a K-W-L about culture, I asked them "What is culture?". They wrote this question as the title of their page in their Interactive Notebooks (For more information about how these work, see my Interactive Notebook page) and set their page up in Cornell-notes style (not only is this an effective strategy, but it allows me to easily find and understand what they did during class). Then, I turned them loose for 10 minutes and told them to answer that question. We had limited computers, but while I had a pair or two using the computers, many students elected to use their phones and ipods instead (Fantastic!). I asked them to use the entire time to find information and expand their answers beyond just a definition - and I was pleasantly surprised that many of them did just that! Students were reading entire Wikipedia pages, looking up the origin of the word, finding examples, and even figuring out what it meant to be a "cultured" person. Here are the results of two students' work** from that lesson, including my notes and responses (click to enlarge):
Throughout the week, I did my best to present the topic of each lesson in the form of a question even if we weren't going to be using the internet. One day, we did a simulation of what it's like to be in a foreign culture and reflected on that experience by answering "What is my culture?" Another day we learned a song and dance for Latin American countries and capitals, and the question was "What are the Latin American countries and capitals?" Because each students' responses were often unique, the best discussions happened the next day after I'd read, commented on, and written down some of the ideas my students were coming up with. It's a beautiful thing to see what students can discover on their own. It's difficult to let go and trust that they will learn something without your direct input, much less that they'll learn the "right" stuff that you wanted them to. However, while many of them more or less learned my objectives on their own and through the whole-class discussions, I found that my students were coming up with ideas and insights that were better than mine!
Finally, on Friday, it was Genius Hour time. The entire second half of their Interactive Notebooks are dedicated to their Genius Hour class periods. To begin Genius Hour, I had them title one of their pages "What is Genius Hour?" and gave them 10 minutes to find the answers. Then, using some last-minut inspiration from Kate Petty's post "Learning Over Performance", students had to write 10 "I wonder..." statements. I've included pictures of their notebooks from this activity below.
Some A few students came up with their ten "I wonder..." statements fairly quickly. Others struggled quite a bit after the first four or five. With these students, I adopted a quick method to get them going by asking them "What is something you want to do someday?" and then following up with questions about what they wanted to do until I got an "I don't know" answer - which didn't take much. For example, one girl said she wanted to go to the Bahamas. I asked her "How much are plane tickets to get there?" "I don't know." "Write it down! 'I wonder how much plane tickets to the Bahamas cost.'" Done!
Here are all of the notebooks** from this activity (click to enlarge):
Once students had all ten "I wonder..." statements, they were set loose to answer their questions. I told them the statements they'd written aren't set in stone, but rather a starting point. Going forward, as they come up with new questions, they create new pages (on the odd-numbered pages) with the question at the top and then everything you find about it down below. The space on the left-hand side of the Cornell notes are for related questions that help you answer the big question at the top. The left-hand pages (even numbers) are for reflecting on the information. I gave them a few questions to reflect about, including "Why did you want to learn about this?", "Is this important?", "What do you think about this?", and for the purposes of my class, "How does this relate to culture?". I also asked them "What do you think about Genius Hour" and a few students wrote a quick response on the bottom of the page with their "I wonder..." statements.
A few students had trouble with "I wonder..." statements that weren't really research-able. For instance, one girl's statements were all things like "I wonder what my future will be like." To help get her started, I looked through her questions and found she wondered if she would be a nail technician when she grew up. I asked her what it would take to become a nail technician to which she responded "I dont know." Bingo! She spent the rest of the period researching how to become a nail technician and what the job was actually like.
One method I naturally adopted when I became a teacher was to answer (most) individual student questions loud enough for all students to hear. That way, many students can benefit from one student's question. This was particularly helpful during Genius hour as my conversation with one student inspired other students. Moreover, by modeling this "open discussion", it allowed the students to open up and discuss with one another the things they were interested in. For instance, one girl was wondering why people believe in the Illuminati and we started talking about what the Illuminati were. In a no time, I had many students eagerly looking up information about the Illuminati to find out what our conversation was all about. On the same note, the conversation that I began this post with was the result of students wondering out loud and spiking their peers' interests as well. I couldn't have asked for better collaboration! This was fostered by every student having their own device (a few elected to use their cell phones and ipods rather than the computers again), but giving them the freedom to collaborate with one another as long as they brought their own ideas to the table as well.
All in all, it was a successful day. Students learned about vacationing in the Bahamas, secrets that the government is hiding from us, the percentage of Native blood that Mexicans tend to have, the Illuminati, dreaming babies, how to do their makeup differently, singing techniques why some of us don't dream, how it feels to go to space, why they started talking to a fellow student, how long their hair would be if they didn't cut it, how to become a nail technician, what the basic guitar chords are and what they can play with them, and whether TuPac is still alive. I've got a class full of Geniuses!
**All student work shared with permission.
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