Genius Hour: Where Our Passions Intersect with the Needs of the World

The COETAIL Course 1 readings this week provoked a lot of thinking.

First, the ISTE standards for teachers blew my mind with many opportunities for growth. I know I can’t tackle them all at once, so here’s what I will focus on first:

1.a Promote, support, and model creative and innovative thinking and inventiveness.

1.b Engage students in exploring real world issues and solving authentic problems using digital tools and resources

2b. Develop technology-enriched learning environments that enable all students to pursue their individual curiosities, and become active participants in setting their own educational goals, managing their own learning, and assessing their own progress.

The study Living with New Media also gave me much to think about. I am convinced that “new media” has changed the way youth socialize and learn. I know that my students need time to tinker, explore and make connections with an authentic audience outside of the walls of our classroom. I am also aware that my students need to become responsible digital citizens.

My brain is full of the endless possibilities for learning.  So, last weekend I spent some time reflecting on the question: What is one small change in my class that could make a big difference? I kept coming back to the idea of giving my students time to explore their own interests and passions. This led me to researching 20% time and Genius Hour. Interestingly, I discovered that fellow coetailer, Jackie Raseman also blogged about implementing Genius Hour in her third grade class. She included many useful links to help me get started.

Genius Hour originates from companies like Google that give their employees 20% time to develop their passions and talents in a way that will further the goals of the company, increase innovation, and enhance productivity. It is based on the principle that we all have interests and passions that can make the world a better place. Recent research in education has shown that when students are given free time to work on projects of their choice, they are more engaged and learn new things in a deeper way. Here’s how it works according to Chris Kesler:

  • Students develop a question they want to answer.
  • They research and design a project that answers their question.
  • They present their findings in some way.       
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I am passionate about community development and helping my students believe they can make a difference in their world.  So, I want to guide them toward what I call their “sweet spot.” I want to help them discover the place where their passions intersect with the needs of the world. Other educators like Oliver Schinkten are also using Genius Hour this way.

So here’s what I’ve done this past week to implement Genius Hour: 

  • Received my administrator’s approval. She allowed me to fit a Genius Hour block into my timetable every Friday.

  • Built up interest by telling my students that we were going to have a special time on Friday called “Genius Hour.”  I didn’t give many details but just told them that it would be fun.

  • Decided to organize three centers for the initial weeks to give the students some structure and ideas of how they could use their time. This week was a lego center, an arts and craft center and an “invention” center (which was mostly just tape and cardboard). Each week I will introduce another new center or idea.

  • Wrote a letter to the parents.
  • On Friday, I showed the students a Kid President video and told them that I want them to think of things they could make or do that would help make the world a better place.

  • Then I turned them loose.
Constructing mini-homes for insects
A Game Idea

I was amazed at how quickly they settled into different projects.

Some students went straight for the legos to start building. Two girls started working on a game they called, “We Treat Others,” (not sure what that will be about but we’ll see). And, one small group worked on making houses for the insects and worms they had been collecting all week. 

Next steps for me include:

  • Introduce a few new ideas weekly. (electronics, coding, websites with project ideas, design challenges, etc.)

  • Keep an eye out for students who are lacking focus or not engaged.
  • Lead students through a process of thinking up a question they have or a problem they want to solve.
  • Introduce age appropriate research strategies and tools.

I’d love to hear from others who have tried this successfully!




Crossing the Digital Culture Divide


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This week as I read through Blooms Revised Digital Taxonomy,  I stumbled upon unfamiliar words that didn’t compute. Words like Boolean searching, reverse-engineering, mashing, wiki-ing. What do they mean?  I am not native to this digital language and culture and as an outsider trying to come in, it feels stressful.

But, there is hope because just as I have been able to navigate living in different cultures over the past 20 years, I know that if I employ some of the same cross cultural strategies I have learned, I will be able to become more like the digital natives.

I grew up in the metropolitan city of Los Angeles. I lived for over ten years in a rural town in southern Krygyzstan, down the street from a mosque, speaking Russian with my Uzbek neighbors. I’ve navigated the the densely populated, urban sprawl of Hanoi by motorbike, struggling to communicate in a language where mạ, má, mà, mã, ma, and mả, all have different meanings. But because I was willing to put in the hard work, I was able to learn the language, make relationships and navigate those cultures effectively. Here’s what I know about crossing cultures.

Culture and the iceberg principle: 


Edward T. Hall in his book Beyond Culture explains culture in terms of an iceberg. 10% of the culture are things that we as outsiders can observe on the surface, such as food, dress, language, and behavior. However below the surface is the 90% that we can’t see immediately (values, beliefs, attitudes) and require much time, effort and immersion.

The same principal is probably true as I try to navigate the waters of the digital culture. The following are four practical ways that I can take steps to become digitally literate:



Make an effort to understand the language of digital natives

While knowing and using the technology lingo is only a small part of becoming digitally literate, it is important. When I come across terms and phrases that make no sense, I have the opportunity to do what I tell my students to do: go look it up or talk to someone who knows about it. It’s a learning opportunity. So this week, I need to figure out what mashing and reverse-engineering are and what implications, if any, they have in the third grade classroom.

Make an effort to understand the mindset of digital natives

This is the 90% that is below the surface. Mimi Ito and her team of researchers in Living with New Media, decided to get into the mindset of youth and understand the digital culture from their perspective. She discovered that while we as educators and parents largely view kids’ “messing around” and “geeking out” as wasting time, these areas actually have the potential for intellectual development, civic engagement, and personal development. Without getting into the minds of the youth, we would not know that. This week I need to interview my students and talk with them about their digital lives. I must find out what they are interested in learning and how they are going about learning what they want to learn.

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Find some cultural insiders to guide you

A cultural insider is anyone who is is a native to that culture who is willing to help you understand the 90% that is below the surface. This is where my PLN becomes an important asset to me. When I don’t understand, I need to swallow my pride and ask people who know more than I do. I can also take time to talk more purposely with my own children (aged 21, 20, 18, and 16) about how technology has shaped their learning. I have seen them use their computers to learn guitar, piano, yo-yoing and drawing. According to George Siemens and his collectivism theory of learning, we derive our competency from forming collections. We collect friends to collect knowledge. This means that even more important than learning content, is my ability to know what I need to learn and form relationships with others who are experts.

Use common sense and discernment

Of course all of this must be done in a context of the big picture and with common sense. The big picture is enhancement of student learning. I need to remember “why” I am trying to learn this culture. As I delve deep into the digital culture I need balance, wisdom and discernment. Is it worth my time and energy? Will it improve student learning? Does it develop my students as whole people?











The Internet as Content or Connection?

750 German schoolchildren free associate what “The Internet” means to them.

 The Internet

While originally the internet was created as a platform for researchers and scientists to share information, the internet has evolved into a complex network of information, accessible to anyone who has a computer device and access to the wifi. For the first time in history, the internet has given humans the unconstrained ability to connect and share this information with anyone around the world at anytime.

In my readings this week, I have been thinking about how I use the internet for learning. It was helpful to break it down and think about how I use the internet to access information and make social connections.

The internet as a mass of content

Here are a few of the ways that I use the internet to access new information:

  • Google searches
  • news websites
  • education blogs
  • online curriculum guides
  • YouTube
  • Pinterest
  • Twitter

Basically anytime I want to learn something new I can go online and find what I need. This information is available to me 24/7 no matter where I am and this is also true for my students. When I was in college (back in the late 80’s), I was comfortable and secure knowing that the information in my textbooks and delivered by my professors was carefully  produced in a way that Dave Cormier refers to as a nonrhizomatic model, in which “individual experts translate information into knowledge through the application of checks and balances involving peer review and rigorous assessment against a preexisting body of knowledge.” That meant that the information was carefully vetted and could be trusted. However, the internet has given us access to endless amounts of unfiltered information.  I find myself often reminding my students, “Don’t believe everything you see on the internet!” But instead of approaching the “big bad world” of the internet as an entity to be feared, the challenge for me as an educator is to learn to evaluate the information I am consuming. This is where I believe the connectivity aspect of the internet is a powerful force.  According to Will Richardson, the connection with others helps me to make sense of the information I am learning.

The internet as a mass of connections

While the internet gives us unlimited access to information, it also provides us a platform for making connections. Some of the ways I use the internet to connect with others are:

  • Facebook
  • Skype
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • Instagram
  • Google+

For me, making meaningful online connections means staying in touch with family and friends and sharing information with colleagues. I almost never interact with someone I have not met face to face. It feels uncomfortable and even creepy for me to chat with someone I don’t know. The reading by Jeff Utecht pushed me to think differently about connecting with people. Sometimes I worry that if I invest more time connecting with others “out there,” I will neglect to focus on the colleague who is right in front of me. But I have come to realize that a lot of reluctance to “put myself out there,” is rooted in a fear of what others will think of me and having my ideas criticized. On the contrary, developing a Personal Learning Network is a great way for me to begin to dialogue about the content I am learning. My PLN is where, in the context of a community, I can make sense of the mass of content that I am consuming. This community also gives me a place to share my thinking and have it sharpened.

Rhizome plant
Posidonia Rhizome Plant by Arnaud Abadi www. CC

I love how Dave Cormier uses the metaphor of a rhizome plant to represent learning communities. A rhizome plant, like the one pictured, doesn’t just have one central point of growth. It has multiple autonomous nodes that need each other but can individually grow and flourish on their own.  It is the idea that knowledge and ideas are fluid and grow as we interact with them together in community.



The Internet as both Content AND Connection

Ultimately it’s the synergy of the internet’s content and connectivity, that enables us to create new ways of thinking and doing. We need both.  As I continue on in this course, I look forward to taking some risks to discuss my learning with other learners in hopes of growing my ideas. I would love to hear from you. What are some ways that you use your PLN to grow your ideas? Please comment below.




Stepping Out into the Unknown


Photo by Minh Nguyen Jr.

Last Spring I attended the Vietnam Ed Tech conference. At that conference I heard COETAIL co-founder, Kim Cofino speak. I remember her asking the audience if we were consumers or producers of the digital messages that are saturating our society. What about my students? Were they consumers or producers? My eyes were opened to a new way of thinking about learning and how the digital landscape of the 21st century is changing how we learn. I came away from that time with more questions than answers but decided to take steps to implement what I could from that conference.

I first stepped into a classroom almost 25 years ago when there were no computers in my class, no email, no internet…only me, the students, some books and an overhead projector. After teaching for some years, I left the classroom, started a family, and moved to Kyrgyzstan, where my husband and I lived and worked for 10 years. Fast forward to six years ago when I stepped back into the classroom. I honestly felt so out of it. I didn’t even know how to make a powerpoint. That began my first journey of self-directed learning. The quickest way for me to learn the new technologies and get up to speed on best practices in education was to ask for help from my young, tech savvy colleagues, watch YouTube videos and read everything I could on the internet. I came across blogs like Cult of Pedagogy (Jennifer Gonzalez) and Edutopia and began to learn all I could.

So here I am ready to dive into this course. I am nervous and see this as something way beyond my capabilities but I want to step out and take a risk. I want to add some structure to what I am already trying to learn on my own. I know that I need a community to encourage me and keep me accountable. I look forward to growing my professional learning network (had no idea what a PLN was until just a few months ago).

I have given a lot of thought to the title of my blog which includes the words: LEARNING, GLOBAL, and COMMUNITY. Each of these words is close to my heart so I hope to unpack them in another blog. Until then…cheers to everyone in COTAIL Online Cohort7. I look forward to connecting and growing with you.