Empowering students with Genius Hour—Part 3: Acting through collective genius

Today’s post was written by Tammy Brecht Dunbar, M.Ed., STEM and fifth-grade teacher in the Manteca Unified School District and Educational Technology at Teachers College of San Joaquin in Stockton, California.

This is the last of a three-part series taking an in-depth look at actual in-class lessons from “Liberating Genius,” Angela Maiers’ free e-book (in OneNote format). For more guidance, access my updated OneNote lesson plans and read the first two posts in the series: “Part 1: Accepting your genius” and “Part 2: Accelerating your genius.”

At our recent annual student/faculty basketball game, I asked my students which side they were rooting for.

“Either way, Lincoln wins,” replied Catherine with a smile, her friends nodding in agreement.

That has been the amazing new attitude of my students now that they have completed the 20 lessons of Angela Maier’s e-book “Liberating Genius.” They understand that together we are stronger and that no matter who among us wins, we all win.

To stress the importance of needing to use our collective genius to solve problems, we extended our time with “Lesson 17—Learning to Collaborate Effectively.” Students were invited to collaborate in groups, which changed with every project. They crafted Recyclobots, created their own board games and took the Straw Challenge, where students built the tallest free-standing structure possible with only 50 straws and one yard of masking tape.

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The Straw Challenge (left) and Recyclobots (right).

In the past, when I’ve assigned such classroom projects, it’s always ended up being a competition with emotions running high and oftentimes crashing.

But now I saw my students cheering on each other, sharing tips and tricks and staying engaged and excited. Best of all, they could smile and even laugh when things don’t go well, because they know they don’t fail when they learn from the experience.

As we end these lessons designed to liberate our genius, The Room Nine Kids have discovered they are better able to celebrate everyone’s projects and find joy in our collective creativity whether we win or lose.

Many kinds of courage—facing tragedy together

“When your fear touches someone’s pain, it becomes pity; when your love touches someone’s pain, it becomes compassion.”
―Stephen Levine, poet

As we finished “Lesson 19—Sharing Your Genius with the World,” we received devastating news. One of our KinderTechBuddies, Diego, was in a horrific car accident, which was fatal to him and three other members of his family, including his mother.

While our entire school was grieving, my students were asking if they could share an extended Liberating Genius lesson with their KinderTechBuddies.

We had spent quite a lot of time working on the importance of collaboration, and as part of that, students had created “Passion Portraits” of a partner using their “Power Words” from Thrively.com. My students came up with the idea of drawing “Compassion Portraits,” in which they drew their KinderTechBuddy on their device, and then invited their KinderTechBuddy to draw them next to the first picture—creating a dual portrait. Finally, students added either “You Matter” or “You Matter to Me” on the drawings that would then be printed out and given to their buddies.

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The response from our buddies was amazing. They snuggled close; they put their heads on the shoulders of their fifth-grade buddies; they smiled. My students came away touched, but also changed. Paola told me, “I think they know now how important they are to us.”

Focusing on character and genius nets unexpected results

We just completed our second trimester of this school year, during which virtually all our Liberating Genius lessons took place. When I looked at the results of our standardized district proficiency tests in Math (below) and Language Arts, I was shocked to see the growth of the average class score. In Math, the class average increased from 12.7 out of 20 to 16.6 out of 20.

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I’m not ready to entirely attribute these changes to our Liberating Genius lessons, because we have no scientific study to back it up. However, our students now approach standardized district testing with more confidence and more creativity. And that, I feel certain, can be directly traced to liberating their genius.

Now Genius Hour begins

Now that The Room Nine Kids have completed all 20 lessons of Liberating Genius, we have embarked upon our Genius Hour projects. Conferencing is a vital part of Genius Hour; students need guidance and one-on-one discussion time to decide what they want to do. In the past, this has been a long process with many students uncertain of what they might be capable of doing.

This year, after completing all the Liberating Genius lessons and already conferencing with all 31 of my Room Nine Kids, only one hasn’t decided on his/her Genius Hour project after the first conference.

Part of feeling so ready to tackle their projects were several of the final lessons of Liberating Genius, especially Finding a Dream Team and Finding Mentors and Collaborators. Students kept track of all the people they would want on their team to help them achieve their goals and also began searching on Quora and Skype in the Classroom for experts in their chosen fields. Again, here is where conferencing with each student helps the teacher help the students: when you meet people who work in fields that your students have expressed interest in, you can invite them to class for an amazing conversational experience that provides students with resources, confidence and excitement.

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So far, student projects include: learning how to make family recipes from grandparents and documenting it; learning how to make stop-motion movies; researching what it takes to be a professional female soccer player; creating origami creations to share with retirement home residents; and petitioning school administration to adopt anti-bullying activities, created by some Room Nine Kids. One student has already started her project of creating blueprints for and building her first (mini) home, with a goal of being an architect who builds affordable homes for those who haven’t owned homes before.

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Because their collective genius has now been liberated, the future looks bright for The Room Nine Kids and for the world.

—Tammy Brecht Dunbar

Follow and check out our social feed @MSOneNote to ask questions about or comment on Liberating Genius. Follow @AngelaMaiers and @TammyDunbar on Twitter as well.

For all three parts of Tammy’s OneNote journal “The Room Nine Kids Liberate Their Genius,” go to her Liberating Genius OneNote docs.com page.