Using Genius Hour to make school relevant, meaningful, and challenging for kids.

by Rebecca Mieliwocki

Grades 9-12


When kids come to school, they bring all of the passion, and interest, and intellect they have for the things in their lives that matter to them. Then when they walk onto campus, teachers often ask them to learn about things that have no relationship to what they care about most.

As a teacher, I feel it’s my job to try to figure out how to bridge these worlds. I began designing activities that could harvest their talents and passions and build their interests into assignments and projects aligned to standards.

Then I discovered Genius Hour: seventeen hours per semester of time devoted to big, complex, and interest-based projects driven by each student’s own interest. These projects super-charge student’s passion for learning and make school relevant and more connected to real life.

Genius Hour gives kids to things to do that they care deeply about, that are really, really hard, and that don’t have pre-determined criteria to measure success. Really incredible things can happen when you give students:

–Autonomy and control over the way they learn and what they learn,

–A purpose that matters to them and has value in their lives, and

–The ability to master the path by which they acquire and share what they learn.

Genius Hour is a significant commitment for students, and for teachers. But if we want capable kids who can do things and solve problems, we should be sure to put them at the center of their learning.


What I did well…

First and foremost, I was utterly blown away by the products my students produced.  From short films to photo albums to guitar solos to fully designed and sewn garments, my students put more effort into the work they completed for Genius Hour than anything they’d done all year.  There was more passion, more personality, more meaning in this work than for the other, more traditional assignments I had given.  They learned new languages, raised money for charities, increased kindness and tolerance for others, and invented scientific solutions to the problems disease brings.  These kids were making a huge difference in their lives and the lives of those around them with this one school assignment. Where I feel I excelled was in my ability to push my own fears and perfectionism to the edges in order to allow a more organic, messy, imperfect learning process to occur.  Doing Genius Hour without ever having done it before, or seen it done before, meant I was flying blind.  I didn’t think I could facilitate so many different kinds of kids pursuing so many different kinds of projects.  I took the advice I gave my kids:  you don’t have to know everything on day one, but you do have to learn something new every day.  I realized that my ability to stay organized, to be flexible, to coach and lead my kids ended up being exactly what was needed for a project that had no clearly defined edges.  I think that my students appreciated seeing me in a learner’s role alongside them.  It created a sense of camaraderie where we could work hard and succeed together.

What I would do more of or differently…

When I recreated the Genius Hour experiment the second time around, I made subtle and large changes that helped my students work through their projects.  First, we backwards mapped the semester of work and set tentative work targets for the project that allowed students to track their progress along the way.  We made sure to let each other know that these were suggested checkpoints, but that each student should work at their own pace.  I hadn’t done this with the first go-round and found that it helped students stay organized and on track.  It also lowered stress levels by chunking the project into meaningful pieces.  The second item we adjusted slightly was by having peers respond to the blog entries.  Initially I had done all the reading and reviewing of the blogs.  While this was a great way for me to check in with student progress, and to give kids useful feedback, it turns out the my students appreciated and used the feedback of their peers more easily and readily than when the feedback was mine alone.  Finally, the rubric for the project presentations needed improvement from the first attempt to the second.  I am a huge fan of student created success criteria, but our first attempt left too many things unclear for kids.  We had several items students needed to present or do during their presentation, but we left out some vital pieces like how they handled the question and answer period afterward and the quality of their multi-media presentation with specific elements like sound, imagery, and editing.  We also had three qualities to indicate success for each project criteria: you got it, you really got it, or you didn’t get it.  We found that students wanted more narrative commentary about each item and a better connection between these three descriptions and their grade.  A revision of the rubric to add those items we were missing and to open up space for comments inside each criteria box were easy, but necessary fixes.  Since no-one fails at Genius Hour, but kids ARE allowed a do-over if they “don’t get it”, we needed a place on the rubric to indicate whether this was a student’s first or second try.

I still want to grow this practice by…

Every year I teach I will continue to have my students participate in Genius Hour.  I would like to enlarge the impact this kind of student work has on our campus and our community by sharing their work more widely.  It was not enough to have parents come watch the student presentations.  Instead, I could see a way we could invite younger students, or older, to come watch or see the presentations somehow.  I would also like to make the projects available to community and business leaders so that they can see the wide variety of depth of the projects my young learners were completing.  Finally, I would love to connect via Skype or Google Hangout with another teacher who is also doing Genius Hour in his or her classroom somewhere else in the country.  Allowing these two groups of kids to share their experiences and coach one another would be a great way to make the learning more enduring and meaningful for all of us.


About Rebecca Mieliwocki

Rebecca Mieliwocki is the 2012 California and National Teacher of the Year. She was 
chosen from a group of 54 state teachers of 
the year to repre...

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