As the past school year drew to a close, I found some yet-to-be-scheduled time with my seventh-grade English language arts classes—a rarity—and I wanted to take full advantage of it. Over the past few years, I’ve worked to offer my students more inquiry-based learning—having them develop their own questions to answer, research the questions in class, present their findings, and reflect on the process as a whole.
After researching some options, I landed on the concept of the Genius Hour, also known as 20 percent time. The process offers students time to work independently on a project of their choosing. It was my hope that incorporating an open-ended activity would spark enthusiasm and motivation in my students to wrap up the school year. I modified the concept to best meet my middle school students’ needs and timeline using teacher Laura Randazzo’s expertise. Instead of a daily time, I allocated six Friday class periods before the school year ended.
Defining the Project
I started by asking students to determine the individual questions and topics that they would research. Students presented these ideas to three peers before submitting to me for final approval. The students gained perspective on their classmates’ interests, which helped further community in the classroom. The collaborative process also allowed them to offer support or assistance to others as they worked through their individual projects.
Some students started with a skill they already possessed, like singing or web design, and set out to improve on it. Others chose areas of interest where they had some knowledge but wanted to gain more. For example, a student who plays volleyball chose to research a position she did not yet know.
When it came time to conference with my students about their proposed learning, I was astounded with the questions they wanted to tackle when they were given time to allow their passions guide their learning. Students’ project ideas ranged from creating a prototype for a self-filtering water bottle for places with little access to clean drinking water to organizing kindness boxes for the community so anyone could be cheered up with a prewritten message of hope. Other projects included learning to sign “The Star-Spangled Banner” and developing a website to help others learn how to use sign language.
It’s important to determine how to assess the success of a project and convey those expectations at the outset. I reminded my students at the start of class that their grades would be based on their process, not on their final product. Most found this concept to be freeing in comparison to much of the work they typically complete in their classes. Assessments are designed to have students create something: a written essay, a lab report, a reading log, or an art project. Devising a system where the grade is process-based allows students more space to explore their needs and learning.
Each scheduled work day started with a reminder about the timeline and where students should be in the process. Because they started with research, several class periods included reminders about credible sources and the necessity of having a variety of different sources.
As the class neared the last few periods before presentations, the focus of the allocated time shifted to ideas surrounding how to best present findings based on students’ learning. If you do this, remind those who struggle in the process that the final product is only part of the goal. Even if students don’t get to the point of creating something that matches the magnitude of their aspirations, they still have plenty of learning to share with their peers at the conclusion of the project.
Assessing and Reflecting
Students presented their final projects to the class, which provided them with another opportunity to reflect on their learning. I asked them to spend three to five minutes sharing why they selected their chosen project, their process, and how they organized their time. Many used digital tools like websites to showcase what they learned. The digital element offered the flexibility to include videos, ways to donate to a cause, and links to support their research.
Some students gave in-class demonstrations of their project. For example, one student tackled overcoming a fear of public speaking by performing a memorized poem for the class.
Individual project assessment is valuable, but I also wanted to reflect with students on the process as a whole. I solicited their feedback by asking questions such as:
- Was it a worthwhile way to spend our final Fridays of the marking period?
- Did you feel well supported throughout the process?
- How did you feel about the learning you accomplished?
Most students were surprised at how much they learned and how well they used the time provided. Many were surprised at their own abilities to find solutions for obstacles without my help. Some discovered the need to narrow down their project topics into more manageable chunks.
All of my students felt the time was beneficial because it developed their independent inquiry skills and motivated them at the end of the school year. Because the projects were process-based instead of outcome-based, students had the freedom to explore many facets of a concept. Every student told me they hoped my future students would have the same opportunity to learn about something that fed their individual curiosity and passion.