Slice of Life: Genius Hour Revisited


We had Genius Hour yesterday.

During our Genius Hour time I don’t direct the work, the students do. I operate as a consultant and resource. I’ve been a big proponent of this work, because of the agency it builds. That doesn’t mean I don’t question the work and watch, try to guide and counsel on as needed basis. Yesterday was a day I questioned their work.

Our focus this year has been to research or follow your passion or what bothers you, and find a way to help make a difference in the world.

I encourage individual work, but many students gravitate toward group work. The trouble with groups is the possible reduction in personal agency and that strong personalities can dominate the group. Some kids get excluded. You know that kid: the kid who is “annoying,” the kid that doesn’t fit in.  This year, it seemed that students were working well together.

Ironically, trouble started in the “kindness project” group. I heard talk that was far from kind. They were saying and doing things that were exactly what they were preaching against.  This talk led me to stop the class half way through our time.

I asked students to put their work aside and write, persuade me, prove to me that Genius Hour time was worthwhile. All you could hear was the tapping of pens on the desk.

As an aside, they can write argument when it’s something they have a strong opinion about. Three reasons why with supporting evidence, introductions, conclusions and a fair amount of begging could be found in most letters. All done in ten minutes with no planning, prompts, charts or talk preceding their writing. Here’s a sampling of their big ideas:

It makes us feel like we are in charge; playing but working at the same time

I want to teach myself and share my thinking

It helps me with problems – I learn new things

I want to show others that we are geniuses and help other people

It inspires us to do more

We work hard on these projects, inside and outside the classroom

We are able to study things we want to learn in this world

It helps us learn things we didn’t know and helps us spread ideas to the world

It is a time for us to express our genius and stand up for what we believe in

The responses shined a light on why this is valuable time for students.  When I think back on what I have observed I note the troubles and the strengths. Some struggle to find focus and have switched projects. A lot of the work is done outside of class. Some of it was socializing and messy and loud. The trouble in groups happened, but the majority showed great team work and dedication to their work.

Reading through the responses, one piece stood out with a contrary and sobering point of view. “N” liked the time, but she also had the strength to stand up and say the opposite of the group:

I honestly don’t think we need to continue. I don’t know. I’m like, can we just read? I don’t like a loud room and I have things I like to do, but I think that most just want to be with friends.

At the bottom of the page, “N” wrote and then scratched out: “so I think if we do the Genius project….”  I wonder she had in mind.

This one student’s voice is true and indicative of something that needs to change. And maybe not just for her, but for others who need more quiet, focused and personally responsive time.

Providing students with Genius Hour time when time is in short supply, might be a dangerous move. It is not safe. It is possible that the majority are just saying what they think I want to hear to continue in this rather unstructured school time. With that said, I know there is thinking, reading and writing inspired by Genius Hour that has continued outside the classroom time. This is the type of work  we want our students to engage in. Independent, self propelled learning that is done for their own interests and not because a teacher told them to do it.

Genius Hour might  have times that are less than perfect, but it has gotten students to do work they otherwise wouldn’t have done.  The fact that my students feel they have “genius and stand up for what [they] believe in” is big. And that is exactly what “N” did when she apologized for not liking the noise and wanting to just read.

We have things to work out with our Genius Hour time, but isn’t that true for all things we do in the classroom. Things need to be worked on to meet the needs of all. Luckily the room is filled with genius, so it’s not all on me.

Thank you Anna, Betsy, Beth, Dana, Stacey and Tara at Two Writing Teachers for providing a space to share these slices of teaching life. A space to work out it out. Sometimes we just need to write. Read more slices here.



Celebrating: Students

This week and my students were wild and wet; up and down.  Today, the ground is wet, but skies are clear, and I am celebrating my students with you and those who celebrate with Ruth Ayers every week.  They got through some difficult spots, but came out, in my opinion, shining.

Winter Break is almost here and kids feel it. Schedules were disrupted due to practicing for the winter pageant and the rain. Even with that underlying craziness, students did as they were asked. They practiced their performance. They lined up by height, climbed up on risers, squeezed close together and sang.  Fifth graders don’t like to stand close to one another, smile and sing. But they did it. Their voices rising in unison. Their faces shining. I hate the practice, but the results always  get to me and I smile deep inside.

This brings me to the assessment  I gave my students this week. I hate giving tests. Hate taking tests.  But I have to admit, the results can be fascinating. I told my students, as I handed them the (gasp) practice language arts performance assessment from Smarter Balanced,  this is to help me help you.

The content wasn’t bad, three articles about service animals. They were interesting and not too long. I knew some would struggle, some aren’t there yet, but it seemed appropriate for fifth graders in May. I figured it wouldn’t kill them, so let’s see what they can do.

They were to read the articles, answer a few opened ended questions, and then write an opinion piece using the information.

Watching them take this was painful and pleasing. Sort of like watching them line up and sing. They suffered a bit as they hunkered down to read a text that was not their choice. But they took out their notebooks and jotted their noticings and thoughts. They wrote in the margins of the text. They took their time. They worked hard. I was proud of them, and worried for them.

They read, re read, and finally got to the questions. Did they have enough left to answer the questions at the end of all that?

The following day they wrote their opinions.

After it all was over, I asked them what they thought about the work. They said it was exhausting, it was challenging, and it wasn’t what they wanted to do.

I asked them was it good to know what they would be facing in May? They all said yes, loud and clear.


Students have to take this test, for better or for worse.  In all fairness to them, they need and want to know what they need to face.

I spent last night looking at their work. What I saw were big ideas from the text jotted in the margins as well as their thoughts, questions, and reactions.

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That right there said they understood the text, they interacted with the text, they had comprehension and thinking that went with the text.

Their answers weren’t perfect, but the majority were getting there. From what I could see, the errors were largely due to the fact that they didn’t read the questions as thoughtfully as they read the text. In most cases it had nothing to do with their actual comprehension.

In writing, about two-thirds had written opinions and the others had written informational pieces. Were they perfect, no. Were they thoughtful, yes. The majority showed their thinking about the topic and incorporated some of their learning from reading the articles.

My students have not mastered the expectations of the common core as measured by this assessment. What they showed was that the work that we (as a school) have been doing is getting them there. And more importantly they are readers, thinkers and writers. .

Today I celebrate my fifth graders and all the teaching and learning that has happened in their elementary school careers. I celebrate the years of excellent, authentic teaching in classrooms filled with read aloud, guided and strategic reading and writing instruction, with real books and magazines, and the opportunity to read and write daily.  I celebrate the opportunity I have to continue to teach and learn with my students in the months to come.

celebrate link up


Slice of Life: Seeking Real Food that is Lost in Transition

Last night my husband made dinner.

“I don’t trust anything that isn’t packaged in plastic,” he joked.

Due to our heavy reliance on all things Trader Joe’s, salads, pizzas, wraps, pastas, you name it, are prepared and packaged. Every meal is quickly created by mixing, boiling or heating. Occasionally extra veggies are cut or a little cheese is shredded, but the salad dressing is in the package, the sauce to be added (not created) might be from another container. Sometimes we slice some bread.  I’ve often thought we’d starve were it not for TJs.

The meals are quick and good but my husband’s comment is disturbing. Our daughter’s response to the meal was, “When are we going to have real food!”  (Her idea of “real” is Hot Pockets, the grocery store version of TJs.  Which is again, disturbing.)

How did I get here? I was the organic recipe seeker, the baby food maker, the farmer’s market shopper. Now I can’t be bothered to make coffee, let alone grind it from fresh organic, free market beans. No, I pop in the k-cup of Peat’s high-octane blend as I fly out the door, feeling good about the fact that I didn’t stop for coffee at the local Starbucks. Good about saving time and a little money. But annoyed by the fact I had to add water to the machine.

Not too long ago I would regularly cook a meal, with ingredients that were chosen, cut, sautéed, broiled, or baked by me. Leftovers existed. The quick meal was on Friday, when we were all out of “real food.” Real food seems to be something I plan to do. Just not right now. You see, I’m late. I’m hungry. I got to go. I don’t have time.

But time has always been scarce. Even in the past when I cooked and shopped for my family. The change is the family. As they went off to their own lives, the need to make a real food diminished. The few that remain were often off doing, and getting home late. Meal time became a solitary venture. The lack of others diminished food’s importance.  Full disclosure, I’m not a foodie. Left to my own devices, I’d gladly eat Triscuits and cheese for dinner. Until I get thirsty and then I’d have some seltzer water.

The trouble with this is not just the lack of environmental friendliness, increased cost and high salt intake.  It’s the isolation, the lack of human interaction, discussion, and connection. Being alone can be a nice break for an overburdened parent, but too much of it is just not healthy.

Luckily, in just a few weeks, the holidays will bring family home. Whether out of guilt or habit, they come back and with them come routines, rhythms, and expectations. Some of it is strange stuff: sibling to sibling and child to parent interactions that are struggling towards adulthood. But with it comes good things, real food and discussion.


I’m still moving from what was to what could be. I’m just a bit lost in transition. I wonder (my one little word for 2014) what might move me towards this after the holidays pass.

Thanks to Anna, Betsy, Beth, Dana, Stacey and Tara for Slice of Life Tuesdays at Two Writing Teacher blog. A wonderful place to share our thoughts and writing. Read more slices here.



Attempting Techie: Combining Words and Pictures

Finally (a sort of) techie post for Margaret Simon’s Reflections on the Techie.


I’m always looking for ways to show quotes easily and beautifully in blog posts..

I found  Recite on  Starr Sackstein’s blog.

It’s easy and offers many pictures as background for your quote. Here’s a sample:



I’ve used (as recommended by Carol Varsalona)  picmonkey. Loved it, but it seems I need to subscribe (rats) after a month.


I’m sure there are many more.


Celebrate This Week: Books, Books, Books, Kindness and Trust

Time to celebrate this week with Ruth Ayers.

First the books. I bought a bunch of books. My presents for my students and me. I get to read them first. Next week they go into the book lottery.


True confession: El Deafo by Cece Bell is the first graphic novel I have read and loved. Sorry all that came before. Maybe it was the bigger font. Maybe it was the fact that there were more “girly” images. Or maybe it was an easier read. I have to admit the more aggressive graphic novels were hard for me. Hard to follow. Made my eyes kind of spin. After reading El Deafo though reading Hera by George O’Connor was much easier. Hmm.


My readers who struggle with words placed traditionally in text can thrive and comprehend in the graphic novel world. A world I am just starting to learn. A place my strugglers thrive, I struggle. Time for them to start teaching me a thing or two.

I believe Fish in a Tree should be required reading for all teachers. I saw Lynda Mullaly Hunt at NCTE and was fortunate enough to get this book there. Ally’s struggle is mirrored in the lives of so many of my students. The way Mr. Daniels pulls her out and sees Ally is beautiful.  Hunt articulates the struggle perfectly, simply. So that we teachers can understand in our core.



In my professional stack is Dan Feigelsons’ Reading Projects Reimagined. I’m just starting on these “projects” with students and blogged about it here.  Magic words in this book, “say more about that” are worth repeating again and again and again so we teachers can start to hear what our students are thinking.


I want to celebrate kindness and trust.


My students have been sharing this Kindness matters tear off. I found it on  Pernille Ripp’s blog. We have been learning what kindness looks like day to day.



A student gave me this. I was so surprised and pleased. Kindness matters. I couldn’t ask for more.

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Happy Saturday.

celebrate link up



Listening Part One: “Say More About That”

I was looking through the bazillions of emails this morning, after filling up on wise words from blog posts and tweets, and I noticed this quote of the day at the top of my Gmail:

It is not the voice that commands the story; it is the ear.  —  Italo Calvino

That, I thought is it in a nutshell. Over the past several years I have been coming around to this notion of listening to the world around me.  I thought I knew what that meant. But you see, I’m a talker by nature. I think through my talk. That should have been a clue for me as a teacher, but I was too busy talking.

Only by listening can we communicate; only by listening can we teach.

As a teacher, my listening is often done through inquiry. I approach a student, ask, then listen. Sounds simple, but really not so, in at least three ways — one, the nature of my question(s); two, how I hear the response; and three, my response to the student’s response.

The nature of my questions has evolved dramatically thanks to writers like Vicki Vinton, Dorothy Barnhouse and now Dan Feigelson’s new book Reading Projects Reimagined. Rather than come prepared with a list geared to one skill or another, I come with a lean list. Questions that don’t have an agenda. In fact as I write this I realize they should be viewed as requests rather that questions.

  • What are you thinking/noticing
  • Say more about that
  • Why
  • How did you figure that out

I use these on an as needed basis; some more frequently than others. They work for almost anything, any book, subject, behavior, conversation. You name it. Try it on for size.  I’ve found the one I use most frequently  is “say more about that.”

The “say more about that” does something magical. First and foremost, it honors.

  • It says — what the student just said has value.
  • It says — the teacher is trying to learn from student.
  • It says — the teacher is listening.

Second, it allows students to develop their thinking beyond their initial thought. Thinking takes time, and by allowing students that space you’re giving them room to really process. I want my students to go on a journey of thought. “Say more about that” allows for the journey; for their thoughts to develop through conversation with a patient listener.  Using “say more” in conferences gives students a sense that their thinking matters and a way to develop their thoughts. It could be seen as a first step to metacognition and personal agency.

If that was all “say more about that” did it would be huge. Well worth your teaching time. But there is so much more. It gives teachers a window into where students really are in their thinking. It gives teachers a huge leg up on what and (more importantly) how students are processing material, as well as next steps for the teacher. (More on that in another post.)

Students are thinking. Our job as teachers is to get them to do more of that work and help them along the way. If we as teachers jump too quickly to our (often very visible) agendas and teaching points, without giving students space to say more about their thinking, we are not really listening. In so doing, we may inadvertently miss the mark completely, wasting our teaching time and more importantly our student’s learning time.

Slice of Life: Stopped Cold

Today was an adjustment for my 5th graders  Their last day in class was November 21st. A lot has happened to them in the week we weren’t together.  Lots to catch up on. To figure out.

My morning class seemed to flow. They jumped back into the routine.

By the time the second class rolled in, recess had happened, students were reaching their max in terms of focus. Tired bodies and minds had the need to go to the bathroom, walk around, talk, get drinks of water.

There were many one-on-one conversations and many worked to solve their problems on their own.

One student in particular was having a rough time. This isn’t unusual for B. We talked.  About books, about where he should work. About keeping his thoughts in his head until it was time to talk. About the choices he could make on the playground and in the classroom.

After lunch — My students migrate from the yard to the classroom. I walk behind two souls who are beautiful, bright and don’t fit comfortably in classrooms. They are too big in spirit. I watch them bouncing and spinning as we move towards the door. One of them is B.

We get into reading and things seems to settle. I sigh and send a silent thank you to the gods of patience that guide me. Then a bit of unrest starts up in the space B inhabits. I overhear him tell another student, “I won’t be in school tomorrow.”


I call him over and ask about his planned absence.

“I’m going to a funeral.”

“Oh no, a relative?”

“Yeah. My cousin.”

I pause and ask, “How old?”

“18,” he tells me. “He was shot. In his apartment. By police.”

I’m stopped. Cold.

This is what happened on his Thanksgiving break. This is what was in his head as I talked with him about books about his choices on the yard about school.  Oh my.

I was too busy managing busyness, the seating, iPads, shopping for books, book talks, recommendations, blog, vocabulary, read aloud, all the little things. The usual.

I didn’t hear what I needed to hear until the end of the day. We didn’t get to what we needed to get to today.

When I got home I googled “18 year old shot.”  I found his cousin, plus this report from The Daily Beast. Tragic, by anyone’s measure. This is happening right here, right now to our children. Eight years from now, will it be the boys in my classroom? This quote from Roxanne Gay cited  on Vicki Vinton’s recent blog post keeps ringing in my ears:

How do we see one another as human, as having lives that matter, as people deserving of inalienable rights?

Vicki goes on to offer hope and a challenge.

I believe the answer lies in part in classrooms and in people like the ones I heard at NCTE who are trying to help children revise, rewrite, recast and reimagine the stories of their lives so that we can all be and do better.

This is a big challenge. I’m not sure I know how.  But, I know I need to try.

I’ve found some good resources at #FergusonSyllabus. These were the few that spoke to me: Lee Warren’s  tips  could work at any grade level.  Jen Cort also offers sound advice here for dealing with uncomfortable but meaningful issues.  I’ve also got this chat on my calendar.

If you are so inclined, add in your thoughts, tips, recommendations in the comments. My thanks to you lovely Slicers.

Thank you Anna, Betsy, Beth, Dana, Stacey and Tara four Slice of Live Tuesdays. Read more slices here.