Empowering students with Genius Hour—Part 1: Accepting your genius

Today’s post is part one of a three-part series written by Tammy Brecht Dunbar, M.Ed., STEM and fifth-grade teacher in the Manteca Unified School District and Educational Technology at Teachers College of San Joaquin in Stockton, California.

The message on the whiteboard was simple. You matter. When the students entered the classroom, they were bound to see it. You matter. The next day it moved again, where students couldn’t miss it. You matter.

Genius hour image 1

It wasn’t put up by any teacher. This message was being driven home day after day by a student.

She was motivated to deliver these empowering words through the Genius Hour walk-up lessons we’ve been using from Angela Maiers’ free e-book (in OneNote format), “Liberating Genius.” My message-writing student told me she thought her genius right now was inspiring other students to feel as special as she does.

The “Room Nine Kids” is a fifth grade class in Manteca (California) Unified School District. I am a big believer in Genius Hour, which allows students to study a topic of their own choosing. The topic must be approved by the teacher; it must require research, problem-solving or skill-building; and the final project must be presented to the class. I have seen the power of Genius Hour in my students.

Maiers’ “Liberating Genius” paves the way to Genius Hour through lessons that involve self-reflection, character-building, collaboration and the inspiring motto, “You are a genius and the world needs your contribution.” One of our lessons included having the students realize that their genius matters—not just to them but to the world around them. And one of my students has already taken that message to heart.

The lessons in “Liberating Genius” (and this blog series) are broken up into three parts:

  • Accepting your genius
  • Accelerating your genius
  • Acting through your genius

You can access my OneNote lesson plans for more guidance here.

Creating our “Genius Wall”

Curiosity is the beginning of genius, so before Lesson Two, I outlined Albert Einstein in pencil on white butcher paper and placed him on our classroom wall. As we progressed through the day, I walked over to the wall and colored in another section, prompting questions like “What are you doing?” and “Who is that?” When we came back from lunch, he was colored in and cut out, and some students discovered that they had guessed correctly. At the beginning of the lesson, we watched a short video on Albert Einstein, then transitioned to what makes us come alive.

The Liberating Genius lessons are excellent, but I didn’t want to present to my class using the OneNote that includes teacher notes. I wanted them focused on the lesson, so I created a Sway titled “What is GENIUS?” using the questions, ideas and resources from Lesson Three. With personalized details I knew would appeal to my students and specific content to direct student action, the Sway proved an ideal platform for presenting the lessons. I decided to continue the practice of creating a Sway to accompany all Liberating Genius lessons.

For Lesson Five, I placed folders created ahead of time on each desk that had a single sheet of paper with one student’s name written at the top. No one got their own name on their own desk. As this was being done, students were instructed to get a pencil or pen and listen to the following instructions:

  1. At my signal, stand behind your desk and push your chair in.
  2. When the music starts (“Perfect” from Glee), WALK around the room, and when the music stops, stand in front of a desk.
  3. When given the signal, students open the folder, read the name and write down what they think that student’s genius is.
  4. Close the folder and wait for the music to begin again.

Check out the action in the following video:

We’ve been growing our “Genius Wall” with various mementos from our lessons. Albert Einstein’s hair is made of each student’s first reflection on his/her personal genius. Our Genius Biography PowerPoint slides were printed out and placed on the wall, and bricks from each student’s OneNote reflection on what actions will lead them to their goals were added to the display. Students love looking at the wall and recalling each lesson.

Students share their genius

After our Lesson Five “What is my Genius?” the excitement and hush that came over the room when each student got his/her folder and started reading all the positivity was thrilling. After the lesson, students asked if they could keep the folders. When I told them absolutely, they carefully and almost reverently put the folders into their backpacks. Some even decorated their folders, touched by others’ kindness.

Seeing how my students are now actively thinking of encouraging others shows me the effectiveness of these lessons. When I told my students our next Mystery Skype would be with teachers and not students, they asked why. I told them the teachers were trying to learn how to integrate technology into their classes and we were going to be the ones to teach them about Mystery Skyping. Three of my students asked if they could print some signs to cheer on the teachers after our session. I quickly helped them print out their simple, elegant signs. Everybody needs encouragement to see their genius!

Genius hour image 2

Our “KinderTechBuddies” program has blossomed as we liberate the genius of the Room Nine Kids. We started the program to help out a new kindergarten teacher; each student paired with a kindergartener to teach them how to use their Panasonic 3E devices (care, handling, logging in, etc.). But once we started Liberating Genius, my students began having conversations with their buddies about what their talents are and what they want to be one day. We helped our “kinders” create a PowerPoint poster of what they think their genius is, and we’re working on more lessons to help kinders discover their strengths and talents. They always cheer when the Room Nine Kids walk in. My students are now more than just student helpers: they are mentors, role models and teachers.

Genius hour image 3

—Tammy Brecht Dunbar

Part two of this three-part blog series will be live by the end of the month. Follow and check out our social feed @OneNoteEdu so you don’t miss the next post of this series!

Tammy teaches fifth grade in Manteca Unified School District and Pre-Service Technology at Teachers College of San Joaquin in Stockton, California. She is a popular presenter and trainer around the country. She presented at the 2015 Microsoft Global E2 conference (where she earned two global awards for project excellence) and will be presenting at ISTE 2016 (with Angela Maiers), CUE 2016, ETC! 2016 and CTA’s Good Teaching Conference 2016. Follow her @TammyDunbar or find her at www.teachergeekischic.com.