7 Ideas for Student Genius Hour and Passion Projects

7 Ideas for Student Genius Hour and Passion Projects

Genius hour and passion projects are transformational. Now, I strive to have personal interest projects for just about everything. Whether you're already having genius hour at your school or you want to get started, this blog post will give you ideas for getting started with genius hour, no matter the age or grade.

I'm writing this post inspired by the young man, Tyler Haggerty, on episode 537 of the show that is being released on August 6, 2019. This young man made an app for his genius hour at school and has some great feedback to help us teachers revise and improve genius hour. Every school should have passion projects that students create based on their individual interests.

1. Look for Natural Abilities (but Don't Stop There)

As a teacher, we should be looking for the unique strengths and talents of students. Now, some people think that to say every child is a “genius” is a stretch. However, if you look at the definition of the word, you'll find:

1. Exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability.
2. A person who is exceptionall intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect: “musical genius.”
Synonym: talent”

So, is it realistic to say every child has a natural talent? I would think so. But remember that sometimes, giftedness does not mean accomplishment. We must include the work ethic and the mentoring required to become excellent when we work with a genius hour project.

Thomas Edison, the great inventor, said,

“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

So, any “genius hour” project requires work. Expect it from yourself and your students. Sure, sometimes kids get engaged, but other times, you have to help them find their reason to engage.

2. Encourage Student “Wonderings”

Lindsey Danhoff encourages first graders and kindergarteners to share their “wonderings.” In Passion Projects in Kindergarten and First Grade, Lindsey says,

The students have generated their wonderings and from there, we have started to look at “What does research look like? What does it mean?”
We’ve created a list of the different ways you can investigate your questions. You can investigate through a book. You can find some videos online on YouTube. You can ask experts.
From there, students have been using time in class, and we’ve also partnered up with our media specialist. She’s helped the students find books in the library, and she has also helped them learn some ways to navigate ways to share their knowledge through Google Slides or Wixie.
It’s really happening organically. They are using time to research and create a presentation of what they know.

Lindsey Danhoff
Passion Projects in Kindergarten and first grade

3. Encourage Students to Do Work That Matters

My friend Angela Maiers has made it her life's mission to help students and teachers know they matter. I have interviewed her many times and her story is inspiring.

Students are wary of “wastebasket work.” They want to do work for an audience. An audience of their peers. Adults. The World.

However, remember that an audience and doing work that matters – as I've said before – it takes effort.

4. Spend Time on Ideation and Pitching Before Starting a Project

One criticism Tyler Haggerty had in the show was that too many projects were very similar. However, the secret to preventing uniformity and spark creativity, I've found, is in the pitch process.

While I go into the full pitch process in the blog post, “7 Strategies I Use When Students Make Apps (or Do Any Genius Project)“, I have a “red light – yellow light – green light process.”

A red light is a hard stop. Typically, I don't redlight, but students will often redlight their project and choose another if they don't think they can make the changes that need to happen to get the “green light.” The yellow light means they can't proceed, but I give them specific things that need to happen so they can get to the green light. Once a project is green-lighted, like the “green light” on a film in Hollywood, the plan goes into production and the team moves forward.

The most important aspect of having a useful genius hour project is making sure the project is a good fit, that it is original, and that everything is in place for success. For these reasons, an effective pitch process is so vital to successful genius projects.

5. Involve Students in Project Design

Recently, math teacher Lauren Harris told me that she has her students help design projects and the rubrics to make the work more meaningful.

From multi-age projects where older students are teaching younger students to sharing a project with students as if it is “Alpha” format and letting them propose design changes before they begin work – there are many ways to involve students in the design of their projects.

6. Assess Your School or District

Mark Wise told me about how they assess their entire district with a massive project for eighth-graders. Eight hundred eight graders complete the project and while they don't earn grades – the district grades itself.

Mark says,

“The project is a week-long experience with eighth-graders who try to solve a real-world global problem basically in four days, present their solution to an outside group of adults who then judge their performance. The winning teams get to Skype their solutions to real experts in the field the following day.”

How to Assess Your District: The Global Challenge Project Case Study” with Mark Wise

Mark goes on to talk about all of the data they collect and how they use it to inform their work:

We also collect data on their problem-solving skills, their research skills, their communication skills — things that we’re interested in as a district to see how we’re doing and how we’re improving or not improving over time.

Then we use that data to then inform our other programs and our other types of assessments to see how we can improve those. So this acts almost like a physical for the district, more than anything else.

Mark Wise

Is there a way to unleash student passions and improve a school for future students? Of course, there is!

7. Put It On Your Calendar

In the article “5 Ways of Bringing Student Passions into Student Learning,” that I authored for Edutopia, I shared the importance of making time for genius hour or 20% time projects.

While sometimes it is appropriate to have free play with new materials as students tinker, for this work, I think it is best to be intentional. Play and tinker with a purpose. Plan so you'll be ready; otherwise, it will be next summer before you know it and you won't have made time for genius work!

Genius Hour for Everyone

Interestingly, Tyler Haggerty admits that he went all out for his project. He was supposed to pitch an idea, but instead, he made something. If you listen to Tyler on the show, you'll hear pride and joy in his voice. Tyler is going into eighth grade with an app on the store and as an entrepreneur.

With the increasing need for creativity, we must make opportunities for students to create, iterate, invent, pitch, and share their work. It's time.

Get an ePortfolio Sample in your inbox

Love project based learning but don't know where to start? This eportfolio sample is an example of something I'm sending to my newsletter with this post.

Don't miss out. Sign up now and I'll send you a copy of this eportfolio sample I've used with my ninth grade Computer Fundamentals course.

(If you're already on my newsletter, don't worry, I'm sending this to my email list with a copy of this post.)

Powered by ConvertKit
Picture of Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

All Posts »

1 comment

Lexi K December 4, 2019 - 1:26 pm

Hello! I think this is a great post! I enjoyed reading about how every child can be considered a genius in their own way. I really enjoyed the part where you talked about red light, yellow light, and green light. Using this strategy will help students get on the right path and that it is a good fit for them!


Leave a Reply


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

The Cool Cat Teacher Blog
Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere
Update Required Flash plugin