We cannot bring anything out of our students that we do not possess ourselves. To have innovative students, being an innovative teacher is step one. I love reading, learning new things and exploring. Although I learned an immense amount in my schooling, the most unbelievably beneficial days were the ones when I sat down and opened up my computer, searched a certain topic, and accidentally started a several hour research binge.
That is what happened one day after I had the incredible opportunity to watch my colleagues, all third year teachers, present the action based research projects that my district invited them to do. Yes, you read that correctly. My district allows and encourages third year teachers to choose a topic of their interest, research it, implement a change in their classroom, collect data, and then present their findings. HOW AMAZING!!! I am so grateful for the opportunities that my district gives teachers to grow as educators.
After seeing the incredible ideas, projects, and results of my colleagues’ hard work, I began thinking: “What am I going to do next year?” I then realized that my district was giving teachers their own Genius Project, an idea that has been on my mind ever since I graduated college, and fascinating things were coming out of it. I knew that my students could also make something and learn amazing things if given the opportunity to explore. That is when my journey of exploring Genius Hour began.
I sat down at my computer feeling SO excited, but realized there may be different things that I could implement next year. I decided to reach out to some of my most influential friends on Twitter: Dave Burgess and Brad Currie. BOTH suggested Genius Hour (and sent me resources, blogs, contacts, and even a book and t-shirt, thanks Dave!!!). There I had it, my idea aligned with two educational experts and therefore, I just had to do it!! Three hours later, on a Saturday morning, I had a 17 page Google Doc filled with information, links, videos, and pictures all relating to Genius Hour. Of course, I realized that before I get even MORE ahead of myself, I should contact my curriculum supervisor, Kim Tew, and make sure that I was even allowed to do this. She loved the idea, I got it approved, and so now I’m up to 34 pages on my doc!
It is interesting because I started thinking about why I am so interested in this topic and why I think it is so beneficial. I was reflecting on my school years and realized that only ONCE do I remember having the opportunity to create something with no guidelines. Once. (Now, don’t get me wrong. There is GREAT value in rubrics and guidelines. They guide expectations and teach high standards that students need to learn. However, I believe students should experience a balance of school work that has a rubric and school work that has no guidelines). The one time I remember being free to express myself in any way that I wanted was during my senior year of college. My incredible college professor, Dr. Tamar Jacobson, told us that we needed to show her what we have learned about children’s play. No rubric? I was petrified. My whole life I always had rubrics, guidelines, people telling me what to do, what was right, and what wasn’t. I had no idea how to get started. Thoughts started filling my head that included: “What if I don’t do it ‘right’? What if I fail? This is my last class of college before student teaching! I need to get a good grade! Help!”. Little did I know, this would be a priceless learning opportunity and life lesson.
Why did I get so anxious, nervous, and scared? I want to say I sounded a little silly (which I probably did) but the fact is that I know I’m not the only one who had those thoughts. I know I was not alone because my classmates were taught like I was, to follow directions and complete the task. As teachers, I find we are often telling students what to do, what is wrong, and what isn’t (and to a degree, this is necessary and beneficial). But because I’d always been given complete direction, I was not able to develop the confidence into thinking “I got this. I know how to produce a good project. I can show my learning. I am capable.” Instead, I was always feeding off of what others wanted from me and trying to align myself with their definition of “good”. They taught me what was good, but I was not able to believe in myself that my definition of “good” was really good.
For that final project, I decided against the traditional essay, poster, or powerpoint and instead developed a scrapbook filled with pictures of children playing and captions showcasing how much they were learning through play. I learned. I was creative. I had fun. When I got going, I didn’t want to stop. I got sucked in. I researched and read article upon article about the value of play and the different kinds of learning that was happening. I still remember that project. That is what happens when you give students freedom and choice. (Thank you, Dr. Jacobson!!!)
So now, that is what I want to do for my students. For my action based research project, I am going to give my students freedom. I am going to let them explore and learn and have fun. I am well aware that there will be challenges up ahead. I am well aware students may be frightened by this (as I was, at first). But I am also well aware of the value of this. I cannot wait!!
Thank you for reading. Writing this post was actually very therapeutic. If you have any thoughts, suggestions, ideas, resources, etc. that you would like to share, please comment below or DM me (@MissDenko).
I also wanted to thank the a few people that made this blog post possible: Kim Tew (@KReynolds13), Dave Burgess (@burgessdave), Brad Currie (@bradmcurrie), Dr. Tamar Jacobson (@tamarj) and Denis Sheeran (@MathDenisNJ) (my appointed editor). I am so thankful for you all.