The Genius Hours

What would you do if you weren't afraid?

The devil is in the details

This week I’ve spent time beefing up my TED-Talk spreadsheet, putting my classroom together, watching Stargate SG-1, and going through our standards and Descartes (we use the MAP test) to pair my units with standards. The thing I love most about teaching language arts is that though I have standards I have to cover, how I do that is entirely up to me. That was certainly true when I taught history, but there is a very definite sense of freedom in language arts that I didn’t have in history.

Medieval Torture

During last night’s genius hour chat I was reminded of an assignment I did before I knew about genius hour. I handed my students copies of the standards we had to learn and asked them to brainstorm ways we could a) learn them and b) show that we’d learned them.  I think students learned a lot about what was required of them to do well. They also were able to take ownership of their learning and really think about what they were doing and why they were doing it. We also had a lot of fun creating these assignments. You’ll see in this picture, one student believed that a demonstration would be a good way of showing what she’d learned about medieval torture. Silly, sure, but we had a constructive conversation about considering your audience and appropriate ways to share what you know. In the end, this student ended up doing her project on Viking sagas.

I realized that there was a purpose and a benefit to showing students where they should be by the end of the year right from the beginning. I’ll have to go in and tweak some of the assignments that went with the stroll through the standards, but I think it’s worth it. I’ve been working on all of the big picture items until now. I am at the point I need to start working out the details. This is a good place to start.

Details yet to be sorted out:

  • 40 book challenge
    • genre requirements
    • how to introduce it
    • do I use badges or no?
  • Reading  & Writing Notebooks
    • how to get students to buy in
    • what are some must-haves in each one
  • Shakespeare
    • A wide range of abilities in my class – how can I make it work for all of them in a way that is respectful of where everyone is and what they need
    • I want to move toward more of the drama piece, rather than just reading
  • Essential Questions
    • For each unit?
    • For the whole year?
  • Vocabulary
    • Biggest need for differentiation
    • How to make this flexible yet structured

So…just a few things to figure out in the next day or two.


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So that July thing didn’t work out

I really did mean to post every day in July. I forgot I was working on a big project that required many more hours than I’d anticipated. I also ran away for a few days to attend my cousin’s wedding in NY.

Now I’m sitting in my half set-up classroom wondering just where the rest of the summer went. I’m lucky in that I have my very own classroom fairies who love to paper bulletin boards and re-arrange my classroom library, which is now sorted by genre. I’ve taken down last year’s quotes, moving some of them to the “Big” wall. This year’s quote wall is now empty and ready for all of the sixth grade pithiness that I know is heading my way.


I’ve done some preliminary planning for poetry, Poe, Shakespeare, vocabulary and Genius Hour. Next up: compiling plans for students based, in part, on spring MAP data – just a place to start.  This year’s goal is to differentiate to the greatest extent possible. Reading and Writing Workshop are designed for differentiation and to support students at their level of readiness. Though I love summer and have learned a lot this year from my Twitter peeps, I am super excited for school to start on August 21.

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TED Talks & Inspiration

Well that didn’t take long. I spent my Wednesday tween-sitting my niece and promptly forgot that I had a blog I’d committed to updating every weekday.

Last year, I was the fifth grade gifted specialist and taught five sections of language arts. This year I’ll be the sixth grade gifted specialist teaching three sections of language arts.  It’s likely that I’ll be teaching many of the same students. I’ve heard from some of them over the course of the summer. It’s been fun staying in touch with them and finding out what they’re doing during the summer. I’ve been trading emails with one student over the last few days about a variety of subjects – books read, fun being had, studying being done. This student is a pretty amazing tween and will only continue to become more amazing as she matures.

I sent her a TED Talk to watch, telling her that the boy in the video reminded me of her. She sent me back an email saying that she felt like she could change the world. I hope she really means that, because I know she can. I was already pretty committed to showing a TED Talk a week in the coming year, but this has solidified my plans.  I know that many of my students could benefit from seeing other people – children and adults alike – changing the world. Finding a problem they want to research, a problem they think they can help fix.  I’m really excited to see what they come up with this year.


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Choices, so many choices

A few units from last year really stand out:

  • Biography unit: students picked someone from my large supply of biographies or supplied their own and then created a museum based on their subject.  The museum piece was complicated and challenging but fun. 
  • Literature circles: I taught 90 students last year. We didn’t have 90 copies of any one book in our book room, so instead I pulled a bunch of class sets and gave them choices: When You Reach Me, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, The Cruisers, Antarctica, The Giver, Moon Over Manifest and Phantom Tollbooth. They wrote down their top 5 choices and I did my best to give them their first choice. There were actual cheers on the day they were assigned their book. Students were completely in charge of their group: who did what job when, how many pages they read a day, and how they ran their meetings.
  • Genius Hour: This probably goes without saying. Students were given pretty free reign when it came to what they wanted to research or study.

The big thing these three things have in common is choice. Students are given so few choices in school. They’re told what history to learn, what science to learn, and what math to learn. While there are definitely reading skills they have to master in sixth grade, there is no one telling us what books to read or what topics about which to write. I mentioned earlier that I’m committing to the reading and writing workshop, but I haven’t worked out all of the details.

Things I need to think about:

  • Reading journals/notebooks:
    • Actual, physical paper journals or do I use Google Docs
    • How often will be they required to write responses in them
    • What format will responses take – literary letters, response to prompts, a combination of both
    • How often will they turn them in
    • How (or will) they be graded
    • Do we include lessons/strategies in here or does that belong somewhere else
  • Writing notebooks
    • Actual, physical paper journals or do I use Google Docs
    • Do we include lessons/strategies in here or does that belong somewhere else
    • Do we write rough drafts in here or do I use the legal pads again (so students can rip out, rip up, cut up, etc)
    • I’ve never graded these before, I can’t imagine starting now – so does that answer my reading journal question
    • How often will I conference with students
  • Vocabulary: Word Within the Word
    • This is going to have to be differentiated in big ways
    • How can I set this up so that students master the set of root words on their own pace without losing my mind
    • How do I manage this: badges, graphs, competition, cooperation
    • I can usually sell differentiation really well, but I’m little worried about this piece: it will be obvious who is outpacing the crowd and who is moving more slowly. How do I keep everyone motivated?
  • Touchstones: Socratic Seminars
    • Do we do these weekly? Bi-weekly? Do I set aside a specific day a week for these? Maybe the same day as the weekly TED Talk? That would probably be Monday. It makes sense to start the week off with a TED Talk, doesn’t it? Or does it make more sense to end with the TED Talk and the socratic seminar?
  • Structure of the class
    • 90 minutes a day. 450 minutes a week. How much freedom do I give them? Make weekly goals of what needs to be accomplished? My goals? Their goals? Some combination of both?
    • I think I’m going to need to spend a lot of time on goal-setting and time management. Definitely worth my time and theirs.

So…not too much to think about. Good thing I still have about 5 weeks before I go back to school. 6.5 before my students come back.

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40-Book Challenge

As I may have mentioned, more than once, I read The Book Whisperer this summer. It has made me determined to institute a variety of new ideas in my classroom this year.  (As an aside, while getting that link, I preordered Donalyn Miller’s new book, Reading in the Wild.) The biggest and the one I’m most excited about, is the 40-Book Challenge.

I’ve collected reading logs weekly for as long as I can remember. Really, it was just a quick tally of how long a student read at home in the course of a week.  I sometimes jotted down a note for a student, made a comment, admired their doodles, but it didn’t require a lot of thought on anyone’s end to get this work done. Many of the students I teach are gifted. Many of them would hole up under a table and read a book for the entire 7-8 hours they’re at school on a daily basis. It just doesn’t occur to them to write down when or how long they were reading, because for many of them it’s like asking them to write down how often they blink.  No more reading logs, not like this.

They’ll have a reading journal, much as it is described in the book. A way to keep track of a million different things:

  • What they’ve read
  • What they liked
  • What they hated
  • Book recommendations
  • Letters to me about what they’re reading
  • Letters to each other about what they’re reading

I’m trying to figure out the letters piece. I’ll probably be teaching close to 75 students this year, if not more. I know better than to think I’ll be able to write them all in a week. My plan is to have them write me a letter one week and then another week, write a letter to a friend – in their class or in another one – I’m pretty sure I can get someone else on board with this idea.  I need to figure out how that’s going to work and build in flexibility because life happens.

I love the idea of having some genre requirements because many of my students will read all fantasy all the time. Of course, I contribute to this too – I mean where else are you going to find a library with books based on Doctor Who? I’ll need to beef up my own library to really get the most bang for my buck out of here. I’d love to see them read more historical fiction and nonfiction and folk tales and…well…the list is endless.  The most important part of this is to pull (drag?) everyone along.

I know there are some kids who just don’t like to read. One year I had a student who hated to read. He might possibly break out into hives if he were near a book – it was that much of a hate. I tried everything. Bribery. Begging. Pleading. Cajoling. Threats. Nothing worked.

Until  Anthony Horowitz. I know what you’re thinking, “Of course! Alex Rider can get any boy reading.” Nope, not this boy. He didn’t like Alex Rider any more than he liked anything else I’d given him. But Anthony Horowitz wrote another book, Myths and Legendsand it is this book that he finally finished. That’s right. He finished one book that year, but it was one more than he’d finished the year before. I didn’t get that book back either and I was OK with that. He liked that the stories were short. He liked that he didn’t need to put in a lot of time to get it done. I didn’t care, he finished a book. He was a lot of work. He was worth every minute, but it was a lot of work.  I’d like to find a way to get students to help each other with this part. Sixth graders tend to listen to each other way more than they listen to adults.

So…40 books. How will I keep track? How will they keep track? Do I build in a competitive piece or is that an invitation to cheating?  How can I make it cooperative and competitive? How will I get the most number of students to buy in? Luckily there’s still a month left of vacation to contemplate these ideas.

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Big Ideas

I’ll have three classes this year. I like to be able to tell them apart, so I’ve always named them. This year it was easy – all of the fifth graders were on teams. I taught one team at a time, so my room was filled, during the course of the day, with the Wolf Pack, Eagles, Yellow Jackets, Blue Devils and Tigers. We’re in Virginia, so the ACC was well-represented. This year, however, my schedule is different. Sixth graders are not on teams the same way fifth graders are. I won’t teach one team at a time, so I’ve had to think about what I would name them. My ideas have gone from the ridiculous: Doctor Who villains (come on, you know the kids in the Weeping Angels class will stare me down on a daily basis) to the artistic: Renaissance artists to the literary (a suggestion from the librarian, naturally): Harry Potter characters to the musical: Mozart, Souza and Beethoven. I’d chosen two names, Mandela and Gandhi and was stumped for that third choice. I then did what any sane person does when trying to make a decision, I asked Facebook. One suggestion had me looking up a name I didn’t know, where I discovered the woman was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

A-ha! That’s it. I’d name them all after Nobel Peace Prize laureates. I then fell down the rabbit hole known as the Internet as I tried to narrow it down. Though it took awhile, I narrowed it down to my three choices: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Shirin Ebadi and Aung San Suu Kyi. I decided that since it was unlikely they’d know any of these women, I’d make that one of my first assignments: they’ll have to find something out about each woman. Something quick, but something to get them right into the swing of things. I’d love to be able to steer my students in the direction of some really big-idea genius hour projects.

I wonder what our big ideas will be this year. I need an essential question, because I do believe that drives instruction and allows students to make connections because we’re actively pushing them to make them. Last year was “Who are you?”  Maybe this year’s is “Who are we?” Last year we created a museum as part of our biography unit. We had a mission statement which illustrated how individuals can change society. I’d like to find a way to incorporate that idea into a much bigger one, one that drives class all year long. Maybe how individuals can change society but that societies can also change individuals.  These women have had a tremendous impact on their societies, but their societies also played a role in making them who they are.  Maybe an addition to my weekly TED Talk, this might be a good place to introduce CNN Heroes. Some of them would love the opportunity to be the change they wish to see in the world. How can I arrange that?

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Top Five Things to Include in My Classroom in 2013

In theory, summer is the time to chill out and relax. In reality, that’s never how it goes. I’ve spent a lot of time this summer learning from other teachers on Twitter. After spending Monday night at #tlap and Tuesday night at #ELAtlap, I had a million ideas spinning around in my head and found myself following a wide variety of new people. One of those super smart people mentioned that she’d set a goal for herself to blog every day in July. I’m going to give that a try, though I got started a little late, with one caveat. I’m not going to commit to weekends. Another one of those super smart people made a great blog post, Top Five Things to Include in My Classroom 2013 and I decided to steal her idea. Of course, this then required me to think of the top five things I want to do this year. I’m having a hard time narrowing it down to just five, but I’m going to give it a shot.

Genius Hour

This one is a gimme, but it has to be said. I will definitely be making some changes in how this is run. A little more reflection on the students’ part. A little more structure on mine. Most students really enjoyed genius hour last year, but I know there were some who did not. A wise woman – yep another of those Twitter peeps – reminded me to do the math and not beat myself up over such a small number of students, but that’s what I do.  A few changes for next year, off the top of my head:

  • I’m going to require a non-googleable question. We’ll spend time talking about what makes a good question. Of course, this is going to fit right into my non-genius hour work of teaching them how to write thesis statements, but I’m beginning to think that if I play my cards right I’ll find there are eleventy billion ways to surreptitiously blend GH and required content. 
  •  An exit slip of some kind will be required. I’m trying not to overdo on this front, but I think they need to be reflecting on what they’ve learned, whether or not they’ve used their time wisely, and what they think their next steps will be. 
  • I’m going to check-in with students more often. A few students made one proposal and ended up completely somewhere else without checking in with me. By the time I figured it out, it was way too late to stop the train.
  • They’re going to make their project proposals to the class. This will allow for some feedback and for a little more accountability.
  • I think we may spend some time just exploring – mini-lessons involving history, technology, science, math, etc. Anything and anyone I can get to come in to talk to them about stuff. Sometimes I forget that they’re only 10. They have no idea what they don’t know. They don’t know how to ask questions or to look for things they’ve never learned. I think if I can master this one piece, I’ll consider the year a success.

There are still a million questions I have on just how I’m going to make it work, but this is top of my list.

Reading Workshop

There are a few stories, plays, poems, etc. we’ll read as a whole class, but my goal for the year is to implement a choice-based reading workshop to the best of my ability. I’ve been inspired by reading The Book Whisperer . There will be some structure to this madness. Genre requirements, a reading response journal – I’m still trying to figure out the best way to accomplish that, literature circles, independent reads, group reads and plenty of book chats.

Writing Workshop

I missed this last year. I love writing workshop. I love doing it well. I love letting students write what they want, when they want, and where they want. I need to work on the grammar piece, as that is still my weakness, though I have a bizarre love of diagramming sentences. Another Twitter suggestion was Mechanically Inclinedwhich is specifically about bringing grammar and mechanics into the workshop format. I’ve gone back to a few of my favorite books on this subject for refreshers. We’ll have a writing notebook (or do we do it electronically, eeep!), writing groups, and again – choice. We’ll do a research paper but what they research will be up to them. Again, this will be where Genius Hour plays a big part. By the time we get to writing a research paper, they’ll already know how to ask a good question, know how to write a thesis statement to answer that question.

Socratic Seminars

I wanted to do this last year but just didn’t have time. We have a program called TouchstonesMany of my students participated in an earlier version of this in elementary school. They kept asking me last year when we were going to get started, but scheduling made it impossible. I’m hoping to get this rolled out in the first week or two. Certainly this goes against a bit of my choice all the time theme, as we use assigned readings, but we’ll start with the program and see where we go from there.

TED Talks

I’ve decided I’m going to show a TED talk weekly. I showed some last year as part of their introduction to Genius Hour and some of the kids really enjoyed them. I think I’ll put together a list of possibilities to show weekly and let the students choose which to watch as a class. I could also, again because they have tablets, allow them to pick one from a list (or not) and listen to it independently. I think in the beginning I’d like to watch them as a class and have a discussion based on it. I could then see this moving to a lit-circle-like group watching the talk and then having a discussion in their group. My goal behind this is to expose them to as many ideas as I can. This goes back to Genius Hour again, of course.



Writing Groups

Last night, during the #ELAtlap chat, I mentioned using writing groups in my classroom. Enough people asked for more information that I decided a blog post was in order.  I’ll start by saying that if you are ever offered an opportunity to attend a Writing Project in your area – do it. It remains one of the best professional development experiences I’ve had. I attended the Central Virginia Writing Project more than a decade ago, but there is not a day that goes by that I’m not using something I learned during that month. Actually, thinking back on what I learned, I’m a little surprised that Genius Hour and reading workshop have taken so long to really worm their way into my practice.

Writing groups will not work until and unless your students feel a sense of community.  Done well, you are asking students to share their inner selves not only with you but with each other. This  requires a very real sense of  trust.  We do a lot of low-level sharing as a class. In the beginning of the year, I’ll also ask for volunteers who would like to share their writing. While there are always a few students who prefer not to share, many middle school kids love to share. This allows me to slowly build in that trust.

There are a lot of pieces you need to take into account when creating your groups. I try to make each group as diverse as I can while ensuring that each student will grow while they a part of that group. I do my best to find at least one thing that each student does really well. When students ask me a question I know can be answered by a student, I point them in that child’s direction, declaring him/her to be the “class expert.”  I may have a (or more than than one) spelling expert, a comma expert, a thesis statement expert, a paragraphing expert, a detail expert, etc.  The choices are endless. My goal is to build capacity within the class. My students love the spelling expert because they know if they ask me how to spell something, I’m likely to answer them with, “D-I-C-T-I-O-N-A-R-Y”.

While we are doing whole-class sharing, I begin to teach them what constructive criticism looks like. One of my favorite books on teaching students how to respond to each other is Sharing and Responding. Though this book is mostly for adults, I’ve found it is pretty easy to adapt for my students. We start with a technique called “Two Stars and a Question”. Students tell two things they really liked about the piece being shared and then they are allowed to ask a question.

  • Why does your character do this?
  • Why did you use this word and not that one?
  • Why didn’t you…
  • Have you considered….
  • How did you know…

This remains one of their favorites because it’s easy and it’s not threatening. It is also a way to offer advice while doing so in a way that the author is free to reject it without drama. On my side, it also forces the author to think about why s/he made the choices they did.  Looking at and reflecting on your own writing is hard. It is far less threatening to look at and reflect on someone else’s writing, but once you get into the habit of doing that for someone else, it becomes a part of who you are as a writer. Students pick up the habit of being (somewhat, writing groups aren’t miracles) more reflective about their own writing.

Depending on the class, I’m usually ready to put them into their first writing group by the end of the first quarter. If our first project is to write a piece that contains a thesis statement, I’ll create writing groups designed for that purpose. In my opinion, four students is the perfect size for a writing group, but I’ve had groups as small as two and as large as six. I start with the students I know are pretty far down the road to being able to write a solid thesis statement. The next student in the group is the one I know will struggle the most with the concept. I try to pair the strong and weak students based on personality and ability to work together.  The next two kids in the group are put there based on their strengths, weaknesses and their ability to work with two already in the group. Honestly, some days putting writing groups together feels a little like trying to put together seating for a dinner at the UN.

Back in the old days, or last year, we did our writing group work on paper. I collected everyone’s drafts ahead of time and made copies for each member of the group so they could write on it.  Sometimes the author asks for the marked-up copies back so that s/he can use those notes to revise the draft. In other cases, they write on their own paper.  In some cases, the writing group member would ask me to make a copy of their marked-up copy so that s/he could use the notes to revise his/her own paper.

This year our school division is going Google! I’m really excited to see what this means for my writing groups. The sixth grade is also part of a 1-to-1 initiative, so students will have daily access to tablets. I suspect I’ll be spending at least part of class teaching my kids how to use Google Docs effectively.

We set a purpose for our writing group meetings. I spend a lot of time explaining the difference between revising and editing. We always focus on revising before editing. One of my favorite secrets (stolen from one of the books below, but I can’t for the life of me remember which one) is to have students take that beginning of a story from their writing notebook and write it on a legal pad. They can use that to physically cut their paper apart, rearrange it, do whatever they want to do without “messing up” their notebook. This probably won’t be necessary if we’re going to do it all online, but I have to say there’s a small part of me that is reluctant to give up my writing notebooks, but I suppose I must join the 21st century eventually.

I’ve used the following books to improve my writing workshop, including writing groups:

I’d love to have a conversation about how other people use writing groups or the writing workshop in their own classrooms. Ask questions, make suggestions, challenge me. I’m up for it.

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Next year, next steps

I’ll be moving back to sixth grade next year. In sixth grade, classes are 90 minutes. I’d really like to expand the genius hour principle into more of the curriculum next year. I’ve read The Book Whisperer and I’m rereading Power and Portfolios to remind myself what a true workshop model looks like in a language arts classroom.

There are a few staple units I’ll be keeping next year – Shakespeare and Poe come to mind, but I’d like to build in some genius hour magic around those.  I would like students to read fiction books that take place during those time periods, to do research on some topic of those time periods – the art, the music, the clothing, the way of life, etc. Writing thesis statements and a research paper will also play a role, but I’m going to try to incorporate those into a genius hour project of the students’ choosing. I’ll be spending at least part of the summer figuring out how this will look in my classroom.


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What Great Learning Looks Like

I’ve been blown away by quite a lot of what I’ve seen going on during Genius Hour. So many students are self-directed and focused on what they’re doing. While they ask a million questions, they don’t always come to me with those questions. They are looking for the experts among their classmates, families and the wider community.

Just a few things I didn’t know, but someone else did:

  • What programs to use to create games
  • How to use Scratch
  • Where to find a program to help create apps
  • The atomic structure of gold
  • Who to call at the at DFS to start a program for children in foster care
  • How to make a tessellation
  • How to use Garage Band
  • How to use iMovie

Some students are still struggling to find a topic. It can be frustrating when you’ve never been given this kind of freedom to have to narrow down your ideas. Some students are still working to find a balance between learning the skills they need for creating their website and researching the content they’ll need for creating that website.

We’re all learning together, which is an interesting perspective for the students, I think. I don’t have all of the answers. Sometimes we have to find them together.

Real learning is messy, fun, loud, complicated and every now and then, frustrating. It is always a challenge.

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