The best part about being a teacher is learning something new: an idea, activity or assignment that can connect, engage and inspire students. And in the words of Steve Jobs, I’m “all about stealing good ideas”. To be complacent is to be left behind in this profession, so I’m always looking for the next big thing.
Actually, as I was sitting writing this blog in my school cafeteria, one of our board consultants walked by and said: “What are you doing? Have you been on Twitter today? I just posted the coolest thing I saw at EHS called Flipgrid (https://info.flipgrid.com/)”. So, I checked it out, and she’s right – it was really cool. I’ll be stealing that idea too.
Anyways, back to my original blog post……in June of the last school year, as my fire for teaching was dying and my appetite for beverages and beaches was growing I was hit in the face with a fabulous new concept in education: Genius Time. The PD session was led by two trusted English colleagues at R.D.S.B. Their message was simple but powerful: release the reigns of control, and let students construct their own culminating activities based on their interests, goals or curiosities. They’d tried it; it worked. Kids loved it and were learning, reading, writing, communicating – and sharing. I was sold. Now, I just had to sell it to the boss…..
But that was easy – she saw the same presentation at a Principal’s session and already liked the idea. Yay for me!
Genius Time in Education
So what is Genius Time? If you haven’t heard the buzz word yet, it’s a concept that derived from the technology sector and basically gives employees (or students in our case) free reign to work on a project they are passionate about that also served the company’s goals (or in our case the curriculum). Teachers would act as facilitators: conferencing, questioning, encouraging and setting the guidelines of the project, but the initiative, learning, topics, projects, ideas, etc. would come from the students. If you’re looking for a more detailed discussion of the concept as it applies to education, please consult the following sources which do a fantastic job both explaining and providing resources for this teaching idea: http://www.geniushour.com/; http://www.geniushourguide.org/.
Traditionally, I evaluate a variety of skills throughout a culminating activity in my English classroom: research skills, MLA style annotations, oral communication (conferencing and large group), and selection, use and application of media tools. If I structured the guidelines of the Genius Time Project based on this list of assessment criteria, the students could essentially create anything they liked as long as they could show me evidence of what I needed to evaluate. Things could have stopped there, and I would have had a really cool new concept for my English culminating activities this semester, but it evolved.
Interdisciplinary Culminating Activities at L.D.S.S.
After speaking with ‘the boss’ about it, we came up with the idea of making this the focus of our Innovation CI, and expanding the concept to allow students to not only complete a Genius Time Project for their English culminating activity but to create projects that were interdisciplinary in nature and could satisfy multiple course culminating activities. Oh yeah; that’s what I said: one student driven culminating activity that could satisfy assessment criteria for multiple courses (if they so desired).
Interdisciplinary teaching approaches are found to increase student engagement (see article here: https://serc.carleton.edu/econ/interdisciplinary/why.html), and the trend in innovative educational realms seems to be hinting at the elimination of subjects all together (hint: Finland ).
Since this was such a new concept, and we knew we’d have to test things on a smaller scale, we decided to focus on our grade 11 University and College English classes (which I was teaching) as well as the other grade 11 classes offered throughout semester 1: Ancient History, Math, Physics, Welding, Construction Tech, Fitness, Computer Technology and Yoga. Students would be introduced to the concept of Genius Time and what examples of interdisciplinary culminating activities could look like, then we’d set them loose and see what happened. Innovative: check. Engaging students: check. Possibility of failure: very probable. Back up plan: none.
After we introduced the concept at a staff meeting, many teachers were pretty wary of this idea, but the Tech teachers in our Innovation CI group were on board and ready to offer great ideas for collaborative projects. Students would be told what I wanted to evaluate for my English culminating activity, but if they could come up with a cool project that did that as well as satisfied the potential assessment criteria of other course culminating activities, it was up to them to propose their projects to that teacher and see if they could proceed.
Resources and Proposed Projects
At first, many students were confused. Some were near tears:”I don’t know what to do” was a common response. And you can’t blame them, can you? How often are students told to research and work on an idea they are interested in, not something their teacher assigns to them? But once ideas started trickling in and students were sharing them with others, there was a landslide of project proposals. See attachment for my project proposal here: Genius Time Project Proposal.
Approximately 75% of my students constructed their own interdisciplinary projects, approached other teachers with their proposals and were approved. The students who decided not to create interdisciplinary projects focused on topics that they were genuinely passionate about and wanted to explore or create. I was shocked: first at the students initiative to create and propose their own projects to other teachers, and secondly that every other teacher accepted their ideas!
I also figured out that we needed a clear schedule of lesson dates and project work time to make both my students and I feel at ease, so I created a simple handout to relieve the worries of our type A’s: Genius Time Project Schedule.
At this point, as you can see from my schedule above, we’ve just started the ‘meat’ of the project, so who really knows what the end result will look like, but the preliminary evidence is definitely compelling.
Here’s a little taste of some of the innovative, interdisciplinary culminating activities our students will be working on this semester:
- Student #1: combining Ancient History, English and Construction Technology. This student will research, and create a medieval bow; he will vlog his progress on this task via his own Youtube channel. This will satisfy his Ancient History culminating activity (historical inquiry process, research, presentation), his English culminating (project conferencing and proposal, annotated bibliography, media tool use and application, oral communication presentation) and his Construction Tech culminating activity (safety, blueprint/planning, construction tool use and application, final product).
- Student #2: combining Welding, English. The student will create metal roses, research online marketing strategies and use social media to market and sell his product. This will satisfy his Welding culminating (safety, project planning, welds, material use and tool application, final product) as well as his English culminating activity (project conferencing and proposal, annotated bibliography, media tool use and application, oral communication presentation).
- Student #3: combining Fitness, English. The student will research the benefits of a whole food diet for teenage mental and physical health, adopt the diet herself for a period of time and track her progress. She will use media tools such as Twitter and Facebook to create a following of teenagers interested in adopting a similar diet. On her social media pages, she will share research, personal observations, promote a healthy challenge for others to follow her lead and share recipes/food plans. This project will satisfy her English culminating (project conferencing and proposal, annotated bibliography, media tool use and application, oral communication presentation), as well as her Fitness culminating (goal setting (physical and mental health), researching a fitness trend, documenting physical fitness changes based on behavioural changes, presenting findings).
Where do we go from here?
Clearly, this project is just getting our feet wet with the concept of the Interdisciplinary Culminating Activity, but if our trial works we are considering opening this up school wide come semester two. It seems to work as an English based project, but really the proposal can be generalized so that a student could create any project and propose it to teachers in multiple subject areas.
There are certainly questions that arise from this, and most likely many problems as well, but we’re hoping to put out those fires one by one. It will most likely take a few years to get this right, and I’m sure there will me many tweaks added to make things run smoothly for teachers, while engaging and encouraging student innovation.
What do you think of the idea of Genius Time Interdisciplinary Culminating Activities at the secondary level? Would you like to try it at your school? Share your comments below and stay tuned….more to come about the results of this trial as the school year progresses!