Pursuing Their Passions
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that pursing your passion will pay off.
And for a group of eighth graders at Sheboygan Falls Middle School, it paid off big time.
For eight weeks, the students spent approximately 30 minutes of their school day, four times a week, exploring a topic or activity that especially interested them. Interests ranged widely and included learning to play the piano, writing a mystery novel, exploring how engines work and teaching kids how to cook easy meals, among others.
“Everyone was doing something different,” said Tammy Huenink, the eighth grade science teacher who came up with the idea for the “Genius Hour” projects. “The idea was to do something you couldn’t do in the classroom and go beyond.”
The projects worked so well that she is planning to do another session during the second semester.
The projects are modeled on a practice at tech giant Google, which allows its employees to devote about 20% of their work time to projects of their own selection as long as it benefits the company. This “Genius Hour” time has led to the creation of Gmail and Google Glass, among other innovations.
After picking their project, students were paired with a mentor – a teacher or administrator at the school or elsewhere in the district. Students kept detailed notes of their progress and shared them with their mentors who helped them develop the idea by offering suggestions or asking questions about elements of the project.
As in the workplace, the students culminated their projects with a formal presentation of their efforts.
The presentations themselves became an important part of the learning process for the students, said Mary Lofy Blahnik, the district’s director of instruction, who was a mentor to Aleah, a student who wanted to learn about the Japanese art form, anime/manga. Although Blahnik knew nothing about the topic, she quickly learned a lot from Aleah as she expanded her own knowledge.
She helped Aleah fine tune her formal presentation to some of her classmates then realized other students might also be interested. She contacted Rocky Hoes, who teaches elementary art, and he invited Aleah to present her project to some of his students.
“Aleah's presentation then took on a whole new level of importance for her,” Blahnik said. “She was excited (and a bit nervous) to share her knowledge with younger students. She realized how important it was to add details for students who may not know anything about the Japanese art form. She also wanted to have samples ready so students could see how she as an artist applied her own style to her drawings.”
Her hard work paid off.
“I was very impressed with how well spoken, comfortable and well prepared Aleah seemed,” Hoes said afterwards. “She also made the topic very approachable for my fourth graders. They loved it!”
He was particularly impressed by the way she brought up key topics – like the continual struggle to improve oneself creatively and grow as an artist – without any prompting from him.
Amy Lawrenz, the district’s food nutrition director, worked with Lauren, who wanted to teach kids how to prepare easy meals. Lauren came up with two recipes – Rosemary Carrot Fries and a Breakfast Bowl – and made a video showing how to prepare the food step by step.
Lawrenz was so impressed by the recipes that the school served them as part of their meal program. A link to the video and the recipes themselves was also included in a school newsletter.
“Any time our students show an interest in the food we serve or they consume, I like to get them involved,” Lawrenz said. “I also feel it’s important that the student gets the praise and I love to show their peers and parents the positive things that are happening in our district.”
The Genius Hour projects took place during a block of time in the middle school day called Falcon Time. The time is devoted in part to helping students receive extra assistance in curricular areas where they are struggling. For those who have demonstrated that they are on track academically, the time is spent pursuing enrichment activities.
The Genius Hour projects are a good fit for the goal of Falcon Time, said Laura Fiorini who helps coordinate the schedule for Falcon Time.
“The idea is that all students get what they need,” she said, explaining that the Genius Hour projects were offered to students who were performing well above grade level in reading and math. The projects gave them a chance to do more “self directed learning” and gave them “much more accountability in development of a project and the presentation of a project.”
Fiorini was a formal and informal mentor to two of the students doing Genius Hour projects. She signed up to help one student who was interested in archery and researched the historical development of the bow in a quest to make a better bow than what was currently available.
Despite a lot of research, his final product was not successful because he had failed to take into consideration some key construction principles. That didn’t mean the project was a failure, however.
“It was a learning experience and he was able to share his learning process,” Fiorini said.
After all, even a genius doesn’t always succeed the first time around.