Sunday, September 28, 2014

Opening the Door to Opportunity

As my teaching style has changed over the last couple of years, I can't help but notice a change in my students' thinking.  When we first began Genius Hour and Innovations in my classroom, students struggled to come up with ideas.  They looked at me like I was insane when I asked them to choose what they wanted to learn about.

However, this year, as we have begun Genius Hour, students seem somewhat comfortable in my classroom.  They are open to new ideas and looking for opportunities to make a difference.  The students seem more passionate than ever about their project ideas and more driven to see them through.

I'm sure there are probably those that think that my class is simply a time for students to "play on the computer" or "do something they enjoy."  But it is so much more than that.  You see, there are many standards woven into each project that we work on.  We don't cover one standard at a time but instead put many standards into practice by doing something that is relevant and meaningful.

Friday, I was listening to two of my fourth grade students working on their Lego projects.  We are using Lego Digital Designer to design our projects before we actually create them.  As I listened, I heard them using multiplication to plan out the area for the base of their design.  I did not prompt this conversation nor did I interrupt and proceed to explain area and why it is important.  I simply allowed the students to see how multiplication gave them an opportunity to plan and create a design that worked for them.  The students were able to learn by doing and I trusted them enough to know they had used that opportunity in a meaningful way.

Giving students the opportunity to learn in ways that are meaningful for them is not an easy task. It takes trust, understanding, and an ability to find ways to challenge and motivate learners to stay the course.  On the other hand, when that opportunity is taken, students make the connection between learning and life.  They understand why they need to know a specific skill and how to apply it.

I still have so much to learn about innovations and I learn more each day.  But for now, my classroom is a place where I feel like students are beginning to see the opportunities around them and they are finding ways to open the door.   And for me, that is reason enough for me to stay the course and continue to learn about innovative teaching.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why Genius Hour is a Priority in my Classroom

"I'm so excited about this!"
"I wish I could've done something like this when I was in elementary."
"I want to innovate and be mind is constantly spinning with ideas."

These were just a few of the comments from some of the high school GT students that I invited over to the elementary to work with my elementary GT students on their Genius Hour projects.  I have learned so much about Genius Hour and Innovations from some pretty amazing people like Don Wettrick and Terri Eichholz.  In doing so, I have come to the conclusion that Genius Hour is quite possibly one of the most meaningful activities that I can offer my students.

5th Grade Students sharing their Genius Hour Ideas with the always entertaining, Don Wettrick

As we began to brainstorm and decide on project ideas this year, I realized that these projects are becoming bigger than our classroom.  We even have Holly Tucker from the The Voice planning to visit and share her experiences with one of my students!  Each project must involve an outside expert and result in a product that can be shared with the world.  As I was preparing to meet with students about their projects, I had an a-ha moment.  What if high school students could come over to the elementary for an hour a week to help my students take their learning to another level?  What if they could offer advice, technology assistance, and a "cool" factor that students need to become excited about their projects?

After deciding that this was definitely worth a try, I contacted the high school counselor and set up a time for the high school students to come over.  As I sat across from the three high school athletes and explained the projects, their demeanor seemed to change as I told them all about Genius Hour in my classroom.  They went from slumping in their seats to leaning in and listening to everything that I was sharing.  They asked questions and wanted to know more about the projects and what each student was planning. As I shared ideas and the specifics of what I need from them, they were all in.  And that's when I realized, EVERY student deserves an opportunity to be innovative and creative during their school day.  If we are not allowing time for this type of learning, we are not truly preparing students for their future.

These high school juniors were so thankful for the opportunity to share their ideas and participate in innovative projects that they asked if they could come every week instead of every other week.   As they were leaving the elementary, I was walking to my car to get something for my next class.  I noticed the high school students backing up and coming back in my direction.  As they got closer, they rolled the window down and said, "Mrs. McNair!  We have an idea."  They went on to share some ideas they had come up with while walking to the car.  These high school athletes were so excited about the projects that they were still talking about them when they left the elementary school!  So every Friday, my elementary and high school students will work together to learn in a way that is meaningful, real, and that will give them an opportunity to experience true collaboration and creative learning.

I want to encourage you to find a way to implement some form of Genius Hour into your classroom. It is a wonderful way to encourage students to think differently and prepare for their futures.  After all, if we aren't doing that, are we really teaching?

Want to know more about Genius Hour?  Check out Don Wettrick's new book, Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level.