Most teachers who go gradeless begin to realize the increased importance of intrinsic motivation. Without the continual spur of testing and grading to drive students onward, we feel the need to foster spaces of student agency and purpose. But how can we help students rekindle a sense of curiosity and wonder, especially when they may be more accustomed to sitting in rows, following instructions, memorizing facts and algorithms?
An increasing number of teachers are turning to the idea of genius hour, usually defined as time given during the school day where students can learn about their interests and pursue projects they are passionate about. When students are ready, they present their findings or projects to the class—and ideally to audiences beyond the walls of the school. It’s an inherently student-centered and messy undertaking to be sure, but many teachers testify to its power to unleash student passion, creativity, and concern for the community.
Interested? The teachers in this roundtable post have you covered. (Spoiler alert: it all comes back to Joy Kirr’s LiveBinder!)
Joy was first a special education teacher of deaf and hard-of-hearing students, and next became a reading specialist and National Board Certified. Now in her 23rd year of teaching, she learns alongside seventh graders. Joy is passionate about students owning their own learning, doesn’t mind being known as a “Genius Hour Evangelist,” and enjoys the school year without marks or points. She has recently published the book Shift This! regarding small shifts for massive impact in the classroom. More of her writing (including book reviews, reflections, how-to videos, and even some lesson plans) resides at www.geniushour.blogspot.com. Find her on Twitter at @JoyKirr, and keep asking the questions that get teachers thinking!
I am a teacher, learner, and global citizen having the pleasure to be in my 11th year teaching 6th grade English Language Arts and Social Studies in Holt, Michigan. I have been honored to serve as a building and district curriculum leader and have presented at numerous conferences including the Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning (MACUL), nErDcamp Michigan, and the Michigan State University Technology Conference. I serve to help students find their voice and do so fervently through community meetings, giving students choice in their learning, genius hour, and recently in our pursuit of going gradeless and being a feedback only community of learners. Connect with me @kmhundt and www.voicechoiceandpaperairplanes.com.
My hope is that I can be a voice for those who don’t always feel their voice is listened to or heard. I want to empower my students to find their voices and use them to positively impact our globe. My role in education has shifted over time, from being a teacher in a self-contained 6th grade classroom in Chicago Public Schools, to an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program Educator, an MTSS Behavioral Coach, a District Coach, and most currently I’ve made my way back to the sixth grade classroom where I teach an integrated language arts and social studies curriculum in Holt, Michigan. I co-teach with Kristin Hundt and our collaboration has enhanced my practice significantly. I also lead as a building and district curriculum leader and have presented at conferences around Michigan inspired initially by my participation in EdCamp Michigan and EdCamp Mid-Michigan, and more recently, in Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning (MACUL), nErDcamp Michigan, and the Michigan State University Technology Conference. I love to share our story and the story of our students. Connect with me @kttasch or www.voicechoiceandpaperairplanes.com
I am in my 15th year of teaching and currently teach 11th grade English and high school ESL at Coffee County High School in Manchester, Tennessee. At different points in my career, I have taught varying levels of English in grades 7-12. I am currently the president of my local teacher’s association and a Hope Street Group Statewide Engager where I work to help elevate teacher voice in Tennessee. I have presented at numerous statewide conferences. Most recently, I presented at the LEAD Conference in Nashville and at the beginning of December I will present at the Tennessee Educational Technology Conference in Murfreesboro. In addition to that, I enjoy participating in community theater, having performed in Footloose (2015), Arsenic and Old Lace (2016), and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (2017). I write a blog every week which is co-published in my local newspaper, The Manchester Times. My blog can be found at unpackedu.com.
How did you first become interested in genius hour? How have you implemented this in your classroom?
Joy Kirr: I first started actually using Twitter after I was told to stay connected to teachers through a hashtag. I didn’t know what a hashtag was, so I started browsing Twitter. Turns out there was a new hashtag for #geniushour, and my interest was piqued enough for me to learn more. I had recently decided my students needed to read more, so I started offering time IN class (how rebellious of me in 2012!). It sounded like genius hour was similar—give them time IN class to learn something new. That’s exactly where we went with it. Our basic premise: read (a book, an article, a website), learn, and when you’re ready, share with the class what you learned. There were never any rubrics or grades attached—it was just natural.
Kristin Hundt: I cannot begin my story journey with genius hour without thanking my teaching partner, Katie Bielecki, who brought the idea to me. After doing my own research at her suggestion, I was completely hooked and could not wait to learn more and begin to implement this into our classroom. We had already done extensive work in project-based learning as a whole team and this individualized choice in learning fit perfectly with our storyline and pedagogical beliefs. I dove into books, as I always do when learning something new, and stumbled upon Classroom Habitudes by Angela Maiers, an incredible read helping students add imagination, curiosity, courage, perseverance, adaptability, self-awareness, and passion to their habits and attitudes. We started implementing those habitudes into our team first and built in genius hour as a perfect way to show those in action. Other resources have helped our implementation such as Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level by Don Wettrick and Joy Kirr’s Genius Hour Live Binder. Our students receive an hour a week to explore their passions and interests. They begin with a question or topic, research it while citing their sources, seek out a mentorship to add value and knowledge to their learning, present their learning using technology, and make an impact with their new knowledge while reflecting using habitudes along the way.
Katie Bielecki: Injustices in our world are not hard to find. Since 2011, our students have been challenged to examine injustices surrounding them, to ask questions about our world and utilize time in class to make a positive impact on our world. We’ve done this work as a class and referred to it as Project-Based, Place-Based, and Problem-Based Learning. At an EdCamp at Michigan State University in 2013, I joined in a conversation surrounding #GeniusHour. Like Joy, I needed to move from having an account to actually joining in a conversation and figure out what the hashtag gig was! #GeniusHour (and the use of hashtags) felt somehow revolutionary as it gave students autonomy in this PBL process. Genius hour has given us a language and a community of collaborators to enhance some of the practices that ground us pedagogically. Giving students voice and choice in this process coincides with our work in going gradeless. Needless to say, this genius hour time has never carried a grade or formal evaluation. We do, however, allow significant time for students to reflect on their own process, as well as providing feedback to others.
Mike Stein: I first became interested in genius hour about four years ago through the #geniushour hashtag. I have implemented various iterations of genius hour every year and for varying lengths of time. I’ve tried starting the school year with it, beginning the second semester with it, and using it as an end-of-the-year culminating project. During my first year of genius hour, it was worth 10% of my students’ grades; after that, I came to my senses and it has been an ungraded project.
Describe what an average day of genius hour looks like in your classroom. If we walked into your classroom, what would we witness?
Kristin Hundt: If you were to walk into our team during genius hour, you would see students busy and engaged, but carrying out a variety of tasks based on their own individual projects. You would see students on Chromebooks or iPads researching, using a variety of presentation tools as they get close to presenting, sending or receiving emails from mentors, possibly collaborating with other students or making or tinkering. Often, our genius hour might begin with a mini lesson (on citing sources, paraphrasing research, drafting inquiries to mentors, etc.) before letting the stude
nts free to do their work. If you were observing me, I would be all around the room supporting my students in their work wherever they might need me.
Katie Bielecki: When guests walk in during genius hour and lean in to inquire with a student about what is happening, each student will have a different story to tell. We don’t expect quiet and it isn’t as if there are conferences taking place; there are iPads for creating movies and varied presentations, crafting items for presentation purposes, Chromebooks for research and conversation with mentors via email. Students may be on the phone with a crisis hotline conducting an interview and collecting data.
Students are able to sign up for presentations at any time so our genius hour may begin with presentations. It may begin with a mini-lesson. We let the students drive this process. Given that we are four years in, we have done things in a variety of ways, but this year we are trying to give them TIME. Time to research is what students continue to ask for. They need to know how to cite sources, connect with mentors, determine trustworthy sources, decipher data. But since these skills may only be applicable to seven students, we have moved away from much whole-class instruction during our dedicated genius hour time. We are simply there, facilitating!
Mike Stein: An average day of genius hour in my classroom generally looks like students on Chromebooks or their cell phones researching information for their projects, with me floating around the room talking to them and pushing their thinking.
Joy Kirr: Ditto what everyone else said. The only addition is that many times Grammie (one of my prior students’ grandmas) will pop in to help. Having an extra adult in the room to confer with students makes such a positive impact! Invite parents and the community IN!
What made you decide to go gradeless?
Joy Kirr: I didn’t use grades for the first 14 years of my career. I was an itinerant teacher with students who were deaf and hard of hearing. Children learned then—why wouldn’t they learn now? I pulled them out of class to work on their IEP goals, and then we changed the goals when they accomplished them. I then worked as a reading specialist and pushed IN to the classroom, leading lessons that were not attached to grades. We were learning simply to learn and improve. When I started genius hour, there was no way I was going to grade their pursuits. When children and adults WANT to learn, why stifle that with a grade?
Mike Stein: Again, I credit Twitter and the hashtag #ttog for me getting rid of grades. Three years ago, I read Mark Barnes’ book Assessment 3.0 and it absolutely blew my mind. He made a sound case for going gradeless and I knew that I had to try it! Since then, I have read two books by Starr Sackstein: Teaching Students to Self-Assess: How do I Help Students Grow and Reflect as Learners? and Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School. I have also read Mark Barnes’ book ROLE Reversal and Joy’s book Shift This, both of which add to the gradeless pedagogy. My first endeavor into the gradeless environment came with two honors classes, and it was such a success that last year I went completely gradeless. I haven’t looked back!
Kristin Hundt: I have always been a strong proponent of standard-based evaluation of report cards, which for me, were my first steps in going gradeless. The goal of a learner in my classroom has always been to show mastery of sixth grade standards, independently and consistently. For me, it has never mattered whether that happened in November, March, or June as long as it did! I began to see more teachers on Twitter talking about going gradeless (I distinctly remember seeing a picture Joy posted on the first day of school with her students jaws to the ground as she announced they would not be given grades) and continued being vocal about my hope to pursue that in the future. The future, thankfully, came quickly and I dove into several books including some of the books Mike mentioned and connected with the Teachers Going Gradeless Community on Facebook and Twitter. Katie and I dabbled in going gradeless at the end of last year. I asked our students what they would think if we went completely gradeless for our new incoming sixth graders and they overwhelmingly said yes!
Katie Bielecki: My goal is to pursue equity and fight injustices. By re-examining grades and what they mean we can begin this conversation. We utilize standards-based grading at our grade level, but still there can be inequities when “measuring” what students know and how or if they’ve shown mastery. Kristin and I have increasingly focused on the idea of feedback and reflection (and how this might impact our reporting methods) since reading the work of John Hattie several years ago and Starr Sackstein as of late. By thinking about going gradeless and focusing on feedback/reflection we might just get an accurate measure of student growth as the student will be in on that conversation.
We continue to use technology to play with feedback options as we knew the feedback cycle to be crucial in student growth. We continue to read and find others who are moving in this direction as well. Finding an inspiring PLC on Twitter has been amazing in this journey of going gradeless. Collaboration with innovative educators keeps my fire burning and helps me feel empowered to make significant changes in my practice regularly. We continue to read, talk, present, attend conferences and TRY THINGS WITH STUDENTS! The response from students has been remarkable. Through practice, they are getting better at self-assessing, giving each other thoughtful feedback, and being reflective and self-aware! Going gradeless is Kristin and my genius hour project!
How does going gradeless coincide with or support your goals in implementing genius hour?
Joy Kirr: Genius hour was one of the first things I didn’t grade. Actually, I had an iPad pilot for four weeks prior to finding out about genius hour, and I simply did not have the time to grade what they were doing during that time. Students (and parents) became used to not seeing grades in the online grade book, so it was a natural progression when we started genius hour that following spring. The premise is simple really. I need to make my lessons relevant to students. If they are relevant, students will work—and learn —with or without a grade attached. Genius hour—or choice in what and how they learn and share what they know—is the most relevant time in school for many (most?) students. My favorite part of going gradeless is that I confer with students one on one, and that’s the most valuable time for my instruction going forward.
Mike Stein: Both going gradeless and genius hour rely on the concept of building student autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Both initiatives cite Dan Pink’s book Drive for why they work. Also, genius hour isn’t supposed to be graded. If the student isn’t intrinsically motivated, then both of these ideas will not work well. That said, even with grades attached, this would still be the case. There’s always those handful of students who are difficult to motivate no matter what you do. The great thing about going gradeless and about genius hour is that it affords the teacher more of an opportunity to work with these students individually and find ways to motivate them.
Kristin Hundt: Giving students voice and choice is what drives all of the planning and learning in our team. If we truly want to build empowered students, they need to be an intricate part of assessment, evaluations, learning goals, conferences, etc. They need to be in the driver’s seat of their sixth grade year. Genius hour, going gradeless, and giving feedback helps accomplish that. Helping students see exactly what they know how to do and giving specific feedback on exactly where they need revision, extra support, or re-teaching facilitates their self-awareness and understanding tremendously. When I saw what students could accomplish—willingly—during genius hour without a single percentage or score given, I knew I could better serve them if I removed scores from the rest of our academic storyline as well.
Katie Bielecki: What Kristin said! Voice and choice ARE genius hour. Voice and choice are the foundation for a gradeless classroom as we empower our young global citizens to have goals that they are working towards and reflecting on. I forget sometimes how interconnected pieces of this educational (or life) puzzle are and then I am reminded by Mike and his reference to Drive that our stories are tapestries and education, business, life are all significantly enhanced if one can find their purpose and know what they are working towards. We want this in our young people and I am delighted to be in a conversation with others who want that for our world…beginning with our students.
What are some challenges you’ve faced in implementing genius hour and/or going gradeless?
Kristin Hundt: Students don’t always get a lot of voice and choice in their learning when a school year is often scripted before they even walk through the doors of the school. Because of that reality, some students have a hard time being given the freedom that genius hour allows. They don’t know what to do with it! I get to chose what I learn?! You aren’t going to tell me what I need to do?! It is difficult, at first, fostering and supporting students in finding their own passions, finding things THEY care about and are interested in. One of the ways we’ve helped this is by inviting former students to present their past genius hour projects to our new sixth graders. Seeing what other kids are capable of doing is inspiring for them, and being able to ask questions about the process helps a lot too.
I can’t call anything I’ve encountered about going gradeless a challenge per se. There is a lot I don’t know, a lot of decisions I am making in the moment this year. I think there are misunderstandings about going gradeless and what it really means. It doesn’t always fit into constraints put on you by your district or your administrators. I’ve said for a few years now that genius hour is the best professional move I’ve made in my career. I have a feeling I will be saying the same about going gradeless in the near future.
Katie Bielecki: Empowering students to make decisions about how they spend time, what they produce, how they can make an impact on the world, and how this might be evaluated WITHOUT a teacher dictating the process and outcome, students who know how to “play the game” of school panic. This has been one of the biggest challenges for our team of students and teachers. Coaching self-awareness and helping students figure out where their passions lie can be challenging initially, but once reflection becomes a routine and ideas start flowing, the excitement becomes contagious. Students begin to feel empowered, removing the challenges!
Mike Stein: One of my biggest challenges is that it’s difficult operating a classroom that relies on intrinsic motivation and that is student-driven when I’m the only teacher in the school who operates this way! Students are so conditioned to doing things “for the grade” that they tend to procrastinate and put other subject areas’ work before mine. Also, I’ve had several parents over the years who have struggled grasping this concept. Most parents have been supportive or don’t really care how the report card grade is determined. Another challenge of the gradeless concept is the fact that I can’t really enforce hard deadlines. Therefore, I’m constantly giving feedback on new assignments as well as ones that have been re-done. This slows me down in processing all of the work!
Joy Kirr: Ditto, ditto, ditto to all of the above issues. Yet, does that stop us? Hah! I feel that, as issues arise, I find more fuel for WHY we’re going this direction. What I need to do next is share the reasons WHY once again—with students and with parents. Keep sharing the reasons why you’re trying new things, and more students, parents, and teachers will see the value and ask more questions. Keep the conversation going!
Can you share an anecdote that shows the power of genius hour in your classroom?
Katie Bielecki: June 14, 2017: 6th grade students host a POL (Presentation of Learning) EdCamp. In attendance are students, staff, sixth-grade peers from a neighboring school, family, friends, and community members. Our students have collected data from these guests to match them to the session aligned with their particular interests. In the final week of school (a 93° day in classrooms without air conditioning) 58 sixth graders escort, present, facilitate, record, photograph, and passionately share their work. Students who weren’t hugely participatory in traditional classrooms were designing, script-writing, choreographing, selecting background music, anticipating traffic patterns, creating signage, and auditioning to be session presenters. All students found a way to share their genius in this venue. The energy was contagious. #bestteachingdayofmylife
Kristin Hundt: Katie totally took mine, except it would be Friday, June 9, 2017 (that was the day I was present for the EdCamp). Another gem for me is a current ninth grade student. When she was with us in sixth grade, she worked on a genius hour project providing suitcases to foster children. This student had been a foster sister to many children over the years and had seen child after child come to their house with their belongings in trash bags. She wanted to end this. She presented to our class and laid out plans to start a suitcase drive at our school. It was a huge success.
That, on its own, is wonderful. The best part, however, is that she has continued her work after leaving us. Her organization is called “Suitcases for Kids” and she has space in a warehouse where she keeps suitcases, clothing, jackets, toys, books, and shoes, so that when a foster child in our area is going to a new home, he/she can take a suitcase with items inside until they find their “forever home.” She is in the midst of opening up a second location. She’s been awarded a scholarship and has been in the newspaper and on the radio for her work. Taking her passions beyond sixth grade to make an impact in the world—that’s what genius hour can do.
Mike Stein: It’s so incredibly emotionally fulfilling when students who do little classwork go to town on the genius hour project. It happens. All. The. Time. The fact is that students are sick and tired of being told what to learn and how to learn it. They love the freedom that comes with the genius hour project. I had a student last year who didn’t have much money but spent what little he had to build a Raspberry Pi powered gaming console. When he presented his project to the class, his classmates were floored! I happened to go on a overseas trip last summer with this same student, and he used his console to make friends on the trip! What teenager is going to turn down the opportunity to play video games?
Joy Kirr: I keep saying that it’s not about the projects, it’s about the process. I’m with Mike when it comes to seeing those students who do little work during the week shine while learning what THEY want to learn. On rare occasions, this will transfer to the rest of the week, as they might even work harder to get finished earlier so they can have extra time to work on their own. I feel that genius hour is the most successful, however, when kids start connecting more with their families. One of my students a few years ago made a Little Free Library with his grandpa, and then went to the village to figure out how and where he could put it. Seeing him get guidance from one of his role models touches my heart.
What would you recommend for someone who starts genius hour? What resources would you recommend?
Mike Stein: #1: Accept the fact that it isn’t going to turn out like you think it will. Roll with it. There aren’t good or bad results, only outcomes. #2: Be prepared that students will freak out at first when you give them freedom to learn what they want. They’re not used to having that much freedom and will probably freeze up from the stress of learning being placed entirely on their shoulders. Recommendation #3: Have fun with it and, even better, do your own project, too! Resources: Joy Kirr’s LiveBinder. Enough said!
Katie Bielecki: #1: Go! #2: Let the students lead the way. #3: We utilize Nancy Tillman’s, The Crown on Your Head, to get students underway with their first presentation. We celebrate each student’s individuality inviting them to present, first, on something they are passionate about, be it singing, drawing, baking, or rapping. They share their skills in this first genius presentation which gets the ball rolling for what could be examined with our genius hour time. #4: Classroom Habitudes by Angela Maier has been key to the language that surrounds genius hour as the text includes practical applications for launching genius hour in conjunction with these seven habits/attitudes: perseverance, passion, courage, adaptability, self-awareness, imagination, and curiosity. #5: Joy Kirr’s LiveBinder!
Kristin Hundt: #1: DO IT—LET GO OF CONTROL: This message goes especially for the teacher who is, like me, a bit of a control freak. I had so many ‘what ifs’ in my head and a lot of fear holding me back, but I took the leap and am so grateful I did. Give it a try, you WILL NOT regret it. #2: Don’t let “time” stand in your way: So many teachers love the idea of genius hour, but say they don’t have time. It is worth every single hour you give up each week. Trust me. The amount of learning your students will do and the impact they will make is worth it. #3. Every year you will have a new group of kids so every year will be different. Each year our genius hour has gotten better and better. #4: Collaborate with others. Use Twitter, Facebook, the four of us here, books like the ones mentioned earlier, and yes—I echo Mike and Katie—Joy Kirr’s LiveBinder. #5: Like Mike said, do your own project too! #6: DO IT! DO IT NOW! 🙂
Joy Kirr: #1: YOU have got to believe in the reasons you’re trying this in order for it to work. The potential to run across issues you’ve never encountered before is multiplied tenfold when you give up the control. Keep those reasons posted some place, so when issues arise, you can go back to your goals and reasons WHY. #2: Do your own project—OUTSIDE of class. You’ll be better prepared when you suggest what’s next for students, and you’ll have a model to share. Some teacher examples are in the LiveBinder, but doing your OWN has power. #3: Look over these ten decisions you’ll have to make. Grab a partner and start planning! (#4? Since many people find the LiveBinder helpful, watch this video on how to navigate it!)
What do you think? Sound off in the comments below or join the conversation on Facebook. Also, please join us as Katie and Kristin co-moderate #tg2chat on Voice and Choice this Sunday, December 10 at 9 p.m. EST/6 p.m. PST.