Tuesday, September 24, 2013

And so it begins...

What a great day at school!  I am looking forward to even better days ahead.  Sometimes I can't believe that I am teaching in such a great position.  I am truly fortunate.

It all started this past weekend on a four hour drive to Lake Tahoe.  I was driving to Tahoe from my home in San Francisco to support many of my friends who were racing at the inaugural Ironman Lake Tahoe.  When someone finds their passion, I feel as a friend, it's my duty to support them.  So, I headed to Tahoe to volunteer at the Ironman.  On the drive, I decided to listen to more Edu All-Stars podcasts.  Edu All-Stars is a podcast from three Texas teachers, Todd Nesloney, Chris Kesler, and Stacey Huffine.  In each podcast episode, the three of them interview "difference makers" in the world of education.  On my drive to Tahoe, I was especially moved by their interview with Angela Maiers.

Angela spoke passionately about allowing students to have the freedom and guidance to work within their own individual passions.  The conversation turned from passion to genius hour, and I knew I had to figure out what all this was about and implement it in my classroom.  It all sounded so amazing and so forward-thinking.  As soon as I arrived in Tahoe, instead of getting outside and going for my planned run, I opened my computer and read everything I could possibly find about teaching with passion and genius hour.  I discovered that many teachers implement Google's 20% time, a time where employees are encouraged to work on their passions while at work.  In education, this is often called Genius Hour or Passion Project time.  We can't actually give 20% of the school day to do this, but we can give some time.  I made up my mind that this is something I had to bring to my school.  Yet, I had to figure out the perfect plan first (or so I thought).

During the weekend, while volunteering for the Ironman, getting snowed on (yes, snow in September... in California), and trying to stay warm while still encouraging my friends to achieve their dreams, I tried to plan out in my head how genius hour would work.  The wheels were not only turning on thousands of bikes that weekend, but also rapidly in my head as I tried to figure out what this would look like in a fifth grade classroom.  It was quite the experience.  The energy, determination, and pure emotion of all the athletes just inspired this idea even more.  I knew I had to make this happen.

As I left Tahoe yesterday, I looked back on watching one of my dear friends, Carmen, cross the finish line.  I watched her train for months.  At times, I trained with her (really, not nearly as often as I should have).  She went through every emotion and feeling one could possibly go through: happiness, fear, sadness, anticipation, you name it.  To watch her cross the finish line all smiles and to see the raw elation on her face made me realize that we all have to follow our dreams, find our passion, and discover our inner genius.  As I was thinking about this on the long drive back to San Francisco, I decided to listen to another Edu All-Stars podcast.  This time, it was an interview with Dave Burgess.  In particular, one thing he said in that interview stuck with me (he says many great things, but one truly spoke to me, at that moment, on that drive).  I'll try to paraphrase here as best as memory serves.  He said something along the lines of never not trying something just because we don't know how it will turn out.  Just jump in and do it!  I may have butchered what he actually said, but the message that remains with me is loud and clear:  I don't know how this will turn out, but it can be simply amazing, so I have to try it!

This morning, I had a scheduled meeting to talk with my principal about an unrelated math staff development that I was asked to help with.  After we chatted for a bit, I told her about my Genius Hour idea.  I described how I would implement a genius hour (really 50 minutes) for the three fifth grade classes once a week so each child would be able to work on their own passion project.  Back story:  My grade level partners and I switch classes every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday.  I teach social studies while my two partners teach science and a tech workshop to all the fifth graders.  I decided to do this with all three classes during one of the three social studies sessions for each class each week.  Instead of it being a room 20 only project, it would be much more powerful if it were to be a fifth grade project.  After I finished describing how students would work within their own passions for a 50 minute session each week for the remainder of the school year to create a passion project (or genius project- the name is still to be determined), a smile grew on her face, her eyes lit up, and she said, "What a great idea!"

The music doesn't stop there.  At this point, I still hadn't discussed the idea with my grade level partners.  At our grade level meeting just before lunchtime, I brought the idea to my grade level partners.  I told them that for one of the three social studies sessions each week, I was going to implement Genius Hour.  I explained what it would entail and that I had no idea how it would turn out, but that I felt we had to try it.  We simply had to do this for our kids.  We had to give them the opportunity to find and discover their own genius, to discover their inner passion.  They were thrilled with the idea.  Not only were they supportive, but also they offered to help in any way they could.  How lucky am I?  Sometimes, I feel like I need to pinch myself.  Not every teacher gets to work with a supportive principal and an open-minded/innovative team.  I truly am a lucky teacher.  Actually, our students are really the lucky ones.

After lunch, I taught my social studies lessons to the three classes.  I took Chris Kesler's advice on genius hour:  I built the excitement and anticipation.  I simply said this to the kids, "I am giddy with excitement!  I have a huge game changing announcement on Thursday that will change all of your fifth grade lives."  I'm going to let that simmer for a couple days!  The kids all left class today wanting to know more and anxious for Thursday to come.

Just as I watched my dear friend Carmen discover her passion and finish her journey to Ironman, I am going to watch our 72 fifth graders discover and find theirs throughout the course of this school year.  Like a big triathlon, especially Ironman, I don't know how it will turn out, but I do know the journey will be incredible.

And so it begins...


  1. Thank you for sharing the beginnings with us... That is often the crux of WHY we are taking the leap into Genius Hour, and will help other teachers join in.

    I added your post to the LiveBinder under 5th grade stories. I used the tag "Genius Hour" so that all posts you tag with it will show up. Please continue to blog about your story - it really does make a difference to so many people and helps them along in their own journey. Thanks for sharing your story!!


    ~Joy Kirr (@JoyKirr)

  2. Thanks, Joy! I'm really excited about starting this. I'm introducing it to students tomorrow. I'll update afterwards.


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