When Sean Crevier accidentally wandered into the room where educators at a Milwaukee Edcamp were discussing 20 percent time projects, also known as Genius Hour, he stayed only out of politeness. He had no idea the stories colleagues shared there would change how he teaches. For the past six years, Crevier has been letting his students choose and drive the learning involved in these projects. And he has honed some systems and tools to help kids find success with a style of learning that is often quite different from their previous experiences of school.
"You are going to have to sell it to your kids because for a lot of kids coming in, sitting down, taking notes and regurgitating is a lot easier,” Crevier told educators at the International Society for Technology in Education conference. And, he points out, this attitude from students is understandable; it’s the path of least resistance. But he still thinks it’s worth carving out the time in a busy school year to do 20 percent time projects because of the life skills he has watched students develop along the way.
"I'm a fixer,” Crevier admitted. He often finds himself helping too much, too eager to share all the resources and knowledge he’s already acquired. “And I think as teachers we are naturally fixers. But I think we don't always have to give them the answers for them to have those amazing experiences." He’s trying to remember to take a step back, to let kids try some solutions on their own first, and to step in only at the last possible moment. He’s all to aware how easy it is to let kids slide back into dependency on the teacher.
DEFINING THE PROBLEM
Crevier breaks this project into three parts: the problem, the solution, and the product. By far the most important step to ensure these projects go smoothly, in his experience, is the problem definition phase. He doesn’t allow students to do the project in groups, although he knows of other teachers that do, because he wants them to dig into something for which they truly have a passion. He worries that in a group students will compromise, lowering investment in the project.
As students work to define the problem they want to investigate, Crevier’s only requirement is that it connect to accounting and that it be something the student could feasibly accomplish within the 10-week time frame he has allotted. He usually gives them this project several weeks into the second semester, and he allocates a 50-minute period every Wednesday to in-class work.
Crevier has designed some tools to help students brainstorm ideas and to help them realistically scope a project that will fit into the 10-week schedule. He mostly does this by holding individual conversations with students about the problem they want to tackle, helping them to shape it, make it more specific, and at times narrow the scope. Before they begin researching, he also makes them backwards-plan the 10-week cycle starting from a clearly defined end product. They have to map out what must happen each class period before that end goal, with deliverables for each day of work. If they reach the first class period and there’s clearly too much work left over, they have to rethink their project.
"That's my favorite skill that they learn because I know they walk out of here with the ability to create, schedule and manage their own projects,” Crevier said. And, often students haven’t had many opportunities to practice this type of intentional planning because the teacher has done this work ahead of time, defining deadlines, deliverables and rubrics. One of Crevier’s favorite things about 20 percent time is that students do that work.
Crevier quickly learned that even when students have clearly defined problems and end products in mind, it’s easy to get off track when searching for digital resources. He helps students stay on task with a project tracker, a simple Google spreadsheet he developed.
Students write the objective for the day in the first box, and then at three times during the class period a timer goes off, telling students to fill in the next box with what they accomplished during that third of the period. Crevier likes to link this system to the business world through the idea of “billable hours.” At the end of class, there’s a box for “pre-work” needed to successfully stay on schedule for the next class period. That “pre-work” is homework before the next Wednesday in-class work period.
He has also built in reflection after each 20 percent work period with a Google Form he calls the “3 N’s.” Students have to answer three simple questions:
- What do you need from me (the teacher)?
- What’s your newest knowledge?
- What would you never do again?
Crevier has found that requiring regular reflection as part of the process helps students recognize the process skills they are learning. Crevier values the process as much as the product, but wants students to see their growth along the way as well.
Crevier has also found that while students research things online all the time, they don’t always have good systems to stay organized for a long project that may morph along the way. To help scaffold the process, he gives students a Google Doc for research, shows them how to use the “Explore” function, and demonstrates how Google will automatically generate footnotes for them. This saves kids a lot of time going back to find resources when compiling their bibliographies.
One of the goals of “Genius Hour” projects is to give students more independence in their learning. Crevier believes that should extend to assessment or else the whole endeavor rings false. So, he works with students to co-generate the grading rubric depending on the essential deliverables of their project. Crevier uses RubiStar to create these rubrics, although there are other digital rubric generators that work as well.
"My main focus through all of it is that it's about the journey,” Crevier said. “They may end in a totally different place than they said they would.” That’s why half of students’ final grades on the project comes from the process -- the reflections, problem-solving and revelations that come up along the way. Crevier has found that if the process isn’t the number one target, then the content never gets as deep as he’d like.
Although students push back against this assignment at first, finding it confusing and challenging compared to the direct instruction they’re used to receiving in Crevier’s class, he has found that with scaffolding they do get better at managing their time, staying on task, and ultimately creating interesting solutions and products to real problems.
One of his students was undocumented and found the college application and scholarship process daunting because of her legal status. Her passion project was to create a web resource for other students in a similar situation, complete with scholarship resources, calculations for the cost of private school loans, and breakdowns on the benefits of spending the first few years of college at a less expensive community college.
Crevier has no doubt that the class time he has carved out for these projects is well spent and he encourages hesitant educators to dive in, even if letting go of control is scary at first.
"If you are going to ask your kids to stumble through a learning process and fail, then you have to be willing to do it, too,” Crevier said. As so often happens, asking students to take initiative, to learn from missteps, and to become more independent starts with modeling from the teacher. Crevier readily admits he has spent the last six years learning what not to do, but along the way he has connected with students, watched them thrive, and has gotten re-energized about what’s possible in his classroom.