Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Out on a Limb

a fresh perspective on Genius Day

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about my real or perceived struggles with expanding Genius Hour to a full day in third grade. My effort to give over 20% of my student's workweek, had left me with more questions than answers. I had even considered scrapping the idea altogether or at the very least returning to an hour a week.

I've been reflecting on the questions I posed in that post and have come to realize (as usual) that it's not the kids in the room, but my own perception of what student-driven learning should look like that caused me to doubt the learning that was happening. I had let my perspective be influenced too much by what other teachers might think about the noisy, chaotic, yet, collaborative, creative, engaged maelstrom of learning that occurs on Fridays.
If a school were a tree, I'd be out on a very long limb. Think of the traditional classroom as a sturdy branch well anchored to a stable, grounded, deeply-rooted, structured, and slow growing trunk Now imagine a limb that grew a bit too fast and a little bit too perpendicular to the trunk. It's attached to the trunk, but at its angle and length, its stability is questionable. That's where you usually find me, as far out on the limb as possible, clinging to the little branches for balance.

Lately, however, I realize that I've been inching back toward the trunk. The closer I got, the more focused on the trunk I became. And that's when the questions began. I'd lost the perspective from the end of the branch. I began to view what was happening in my classroom during Genius Day not as learning, but as something more akin to free time. I'd lost perspective.

I began to see the paper airplanes flying around the room as distractions instead of experiments in aerodynamics, velocity and materials; the carpet of construction paper as a waste of resources instead of a study in area and spacial awareness; and the tiny pieces of home furnishings and copious saved images as a waste of time instead of a natural beginning to the creative process.

I've begun inching my way back out to my place on the limb thanks to my PLN and especially Joy Kirr @JoyKirr and Mark White @mwhitedg whose comments and posts helped me realize how fortunate I am to be able to balance on a limb at all, especially when so many teachers are tethered to the trunk either by policy, pedagogy or both.

I am in no way going to reduce Genius Day back to an hour. It's become too much a part of my classroom DNA. The mere mention of not having Genius Day due to a field trip, special visitor or assembly is met with groans and anguished looks of disbelief on the faces of my budding entrepreneurs.

I'm heading back out to my space on the limb. It's not as stable, but the perspective is much better.


  1. I was writing the comment to your last post when this hit my twitter feed. Learning takes many forms, unfortunately many times learning is defined by right and wrong answers and completion of a pretty piece to hang on the wall. There is clearly a place for that in every school experience but that can't be the totality of a learning experience. Learning is also messy and abandoned projects because we LEARNED that we were headed down a dead end ally.

    I have just been inspired with a new idea as well ... Connected Teachers make learning better for everyone.

  2. I love your connected educators idea. I used to honestly believe that I was the only one who looked at education from a certain perspective. Now I know that there are so many more people in education that think the way I do. It's good to know that you're all out there.

  3. This is wonderful insight, Paul. It is awesome that you can have the introspect to realize what is going on, how you feel about it, and how that changes what you do. At the same time, you have the ability to take a step back and see the "big picture". That is difficult. Most people would have abandoned ship, you did not, and your students are lucky to have you.

    Something I believe a lot in, is giving as much feedback as possible about 21st Century Skills during genius hour or 20-time. I think this is the perfect opportunity to assess self-directedness, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, research, organization, inquiry. These are the skills that it takes to "Learn how to Learn".....which is the most important skill possible considering that we will be entering into an unknown future and have no idea what it will look like. I think that too many rules, too much structure, grades, etc.... can have a negative impact on 20-time, but giving good formative assessment and feedback on these skills is so important.

    Last week we had students tell us about their "Driving Questions" in order to assess their inquiry skills. We had them show us where they were keeping facts, data, websites, etc... to assess organization. A couple weeks ago we had students get into groups of 4 (which we chose) and then had one person describe their topic, driving questions, system of organization, progress, and intention for the upcoming weeks. We kept track of who was good at giving and receiving (and using) good feedback.

    I am so convinced that I have found the perfect resource for 20-time and that is the Inquire book.

    Keep up the great work!!!!

  4. Thanks for your insightful and encouraging comments, Oliver. It's hard to be doing things counter to "the way they've always been." And I know from following your tweets and posts that you understand the challenges of innovation in education. Thanks to you, Mark White, and the irrepressible Joy Kirr, I feel that the risk of being out on the limb is worth it because there are people helping me stay balanced. I firmly believe that failure leads to deep learning when accompanied by meaningful feedback; that student-driven, passion-based learning is the best method of creating life-long learners prepared for the challenges ahead; and that 21st century skills are paramount to learning how to learn. I also believe that these skills need to be introduced at an early age before the risk-taking is taught (tested) out of students.
    I am very fortunate to have been selected to serve on a committee to explore converting one of our schools into a k-8 STEAM charter school. This is a dream of mine and I wouldn't be chasing it if it weren't for the support of my tribe on twitter. Again, thank you for your comments, I truly appreciate the feedback.