Friday, January 25, 2013

Genius Hour Reviewed

For several weeks the topic of conversation in our classroom surrounded our trial of Genius Hour.  Students were excited about being given the time and opportunity to pursue topics of interest to them.  They LOVED the term - Student Driven Learning!

Most students had an idea right away - while others needed time to think and plan.  Some students decided to work together while others chose to work independently.  Some students would use the computer, while others would use different tools.

Our 'hour' began at 1:45 p.m. Students excitedly collected their supplies and went straight to work. The level of engagement was something at which to marvel.  For over an hour students were completely engrossed in their learning while they created comic strips on the computer, sewed a pillow, researched hedgehogs, experimented with volcanoes, created mazes from wood, researched a Brazilian Gospel singer, and so many other topics.

Experimenting with a Volcano
There were audible groans and moans when the bell sounded signaling the end of our school day and thus the ending of their Genius Hour.  The disbelief that the 'hour' was up was clear by looking at the disappointment on my students' faces. Many had not accomplished the tasks they set out for themselves.  Many asked if they could have more time the following day.

Appreciating the students' involvement in their learning I decided to give them some extra time the next day to 'finish' their Genius work.  When I announced it in the morning there were fist pumps and 'yays'!  When the time came, students again began to work diligently.

Over the next two days there was time for students to quickly share their learning with their classmates.  Students listened intently and asked thoughtful questions. At the end students all wanted to know when to expect the NEXT Genius Hour.  This makes me realize the power of allowing and trusting students to follow their interests and passion.  Success in learning!
Ideas for next Genius Hour:
Poster about the Great Depression
  • Allow more time (one student told me she needed a "Genius Hour-Forty-five")
  • Assign work spaces so students are not crowding each other. (Some students who were working independently needed to be further away from the partner groups.  A student or two could have used a study carrel for less distractions.)
  • Require supplies be brought to school ahead of time. (Some students were scrambling to find supplies around the classroom as they thought of last minute items.  Some students relied on their partner to provide supplies only to find out there was no follow through.)
  • Conference with students to see what plan they are following and make suggestions or guide students in this critical area. (While I asked them to write their steps down a day or two beforehand, it wasn't enough time for me to ascertain if students had really had a good idea of how to begin and what to do next. While some students didn't need this planning piece; several others could have benefited from a little guidance from me.)
  • Embrace sharing (Sounds silly, but I wanted the students to be more interested in what they were doing/learning,  but many of them were just itching to share what they had learned.  When the students finally shared I was able to really get a better sense of all they had done.  It also strengthened their learning while inspiring others.)
    Learning about Dreams
Questions I'm still pondering: 
  • Should students be allowed to start their work at home? My directions stated the learning was to be done DURING Genius Hour in school.  However many of my students went home and started researching right away, which showed enthusiasm. Some others elicited help from their folks. Both make me wonder about the amount of parental involvement.
  • What kinds of suggestions do I make for those students who are not sure WHAT to pursue? A few students finished early and were not sure what to do. I asked them to extend/expand on what they had done.  These students came to a standstill.  I was taken aback but a colleague said - "why would you be...we are always directing the students' learning so they aren't sure what to do when given the chance!" That made sense to me!
  • Should I discourage the use of tools like hammers, nails & power tools? One group of students used a hammer and nails and they banged their thumbs at least once! One boy got a splinter with the wood he was using.  Another child was planning on bringing in a power screwdriver.  While I like the idea of allowing students to try using these types of tools, I'm not sure if the safety issue outweighs the learning aspect. (Interestingly, one student recommended we not "allow" the use of power tools in class.) 
  • Building a maze
  • Should I insist on having a back up plan or alternative learning plan for early finishers? A couple of students finished early and they seemed to be stuck when it came to extending the learning on their topic.  I was in a quandary as to whether to send them in another direction or not. 
Genius Hour is here to stay! I am convinced in this first showing that students need time to pursue their interests.  I am convinced that allowing them time will further promote their curiosity.

Do you have any advice regarding the above questions?  Would love to hear your thoughts about student driven learning. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Skype in the Classroom - Connecting "Across the Pond"

"Picture a large can. Just before you kick it, your toe pops out of the front of your shoe to "peek" at the can. Can = Kansas. Toe + peek = Topeka. The capital city and state is Topeka, Kansas!" This Mnemonic device paired with a hand drawn picture was used to help instruct students in the United Kingdom who were studying the states and capitals of the USA.  (Here is the list of mnemonic states & capitals we used from

Right before the holiday break, my grade 4 classroom connected via Skype with Mrs. Stone's class across "the Pond" just outside London, England. Each class was placed in three groups. Using 2 iPads and a laptop, the classes were able to connect simultaneously through Skype (we used 3 different accounts).  Each student in my class shared a state and capital with their overseas counterparts.  Visuals that further depicted the statement were displayed.  Mrs. Stone's students took notes and asked questions about the state and capital.

This month the learning/sharing will be reversed as Mrs. Stone's American students in the UK will teach the my students the remaining states & capitals using the same format.

A third connection is planned where the students in the UK will shared geographical information about Great Britain such as borders, climate, bodies of water, resources, landforms, major cities, famous people, attractions and animals found in nature.

Using video conferencing tools in our schools with programs such as Skype or Google Hangouts changes the way our students learn and helps them become Global Learners.

(pictures edited using underpainting)

Saturday, January 12, 2013

National Geographic Bee Competition

Our School Winner!
From November 12, 2012 to January 15, 2013 schools all across the nation are participating in the National Geographic Bee.  The Bee which has been in existence since 1989 challenges students in grades 4 - 8 on the geography of the world.  Participating schools hold Preliminary Rounds with all students and then conduct a Final Round with up to 10 finalists.  The 10 finalists compete until a School Champion is determined.

The School Champion then goes on to take a 60 question multiple choice test for entry into the State Level Competition.  The top 100 scorers compete for entry to the National Level Bee.

Questions for the Bee are rather tough.   Some are multiple choice and some are not. (Final round questions are NOT multiple choice and students must provide answers.) Some examples:
  • Which state is a part of the Delmarva Peninsula? Virginia/Maryland/Georgia
  • Which agent of erosion is primarily responsible for creating limestone caves?
  • Angkor Wat and Cappadocia are World Heritage sites found on which continent?
  • Which of the following countries has the longest coastline? Iraq/Iran/Kuwait
Our school has registered to compete in the Bee for over 15 years and yesterday the students in the 3rd, 4th and 5th grade classes watched as four 5th grader Class Champions and four 4th grade Class Champions competed for the title: School Champion.  After several rounds the group of eight was whittled down to three who competed in the Championship Round until we finally have a School Winner!

Registration for participation occurs in October.  Make sure you check out the National Geographic site for information.  

Other Resources:
Does your school participate?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Genius Hour in Grade Four

The Genius of Stonehenge
In honor of of the New Year I decided to try something that many colleagues around the nation are talking about.  Perhaps you have heard the term "Genius Hour" from your someone in your PLN! 

Genius Hour is something I have wanted to try since November 2011 when I read this blog post from a member of my PLN, Denise Krebs.  In it she describes her first attempt at this type of activity with her 7th grade class.  To this day, I follow posts and tweets about this 'Genius Hour' in the hopes of one day trying it with my fourth grade students. 

What is Genius Hour?  Click on the link to read in depth how one teacher, Gallit Zvi describes it and it's origin.  In a nutshell, it is letting students follow their passion using inquiry to "work on new designs or master new skills".

Genius hard at work!
So this is it - this is the year! As I discussed with my students, sometime in January, they will have the opportunity to explore/learn/create/design something of interest to them.  My job will be to provide guiding essential questions for their learning/creating.  Sharing will also be a component of Genius Hour.  The students will have an opportunity during a different timeframe to share their findings/presentations/works of art.

Students will be allowed to work with a partner (if their topic is the same) or individuallyt.  Several students have already shared their ideas with me (to be fine tuned of course).

What do you think of Genius Hour?  What do you think the students  might like to explore?