A Genius Hour Brainstorming Session – A Wake Up Call

CaptureLast month, my son participated in Claremont McKenna’s 3rd Model UN Conference. The College‘s President,  Hiram E. Chodosh, addressed the delegates during closing ceremonies. In his speech, he described 3 values that he believes all students need for success:  Creativity, Empathy and Courage.

He’s not the only person speaking out in this regard.  Many others are discussing similar traits necessary for student success. Here are a few:


As an adult, parent and educator, I find myself drawn, like a magnet, to the concepts of creativity, empathy and courage. It’s my opinion that the current testing culture has stripped these qualities from schools but, thanks in part to the internet, online communities and courageous teachers, the pendulum is moving.

A single test score has never nor will ever paint the complete picture of any student or teacher.  And because of this fact, I view the story I’m about to share as a wake up call.

************************************************************************************ I recently kicked off Genius Hour in another 6th grade class – Math Review.  Math Review is one of the intervention programs created to help students on the testing bubble.  For these students, math review is their second math class of the day.  Although there are roughly 6 weeks left before summer break, this teacher believes in the GH concept and knew any time spent on this project would benefit her group – A class where many push classroom boundaries, cross classroom boundaries and openly express their dislike of math and school.

I’ve been working with them about once a week for the past month and have worked with all the students in their regular math classes throughout the year.   The more I interact with this group, the more I enjoy them. They often act like they don’t want to learn but if I plan the appropriate activity, they’ll jump right it.  They’ll even ask to do it again.

Recent Conversation (all names have been changed):

  • Me: Jerry, did you know that Martina’s favorite class is math?
  • Jerry:  (laughs)
  • Martina:  (Scoffs) Not true.
  • Me: Jerry, she’s like you. Sometimes she hides her math skills.
  • Martina:  (Looks at me)
  • Me:  (Looking right back at her) You can do the math, you just don’t want to do it.
  • Martina:  (Sighs)  Well, that’s true.

I never see Martina smile.  She typically looks bored and irritated as if she’s carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders.  Genius Hour changed that.


The Brainstorming Lesson

vvOn this particular day, I was following up on my Genius Hour introduction with the brainstorming/project proposal lesson.  The students filled out their list of Terrible Topic Ideas and shared with a small group.  They repeated the process when brainstorming Possible Project Ideas.  Due to the small size of the class, I asked students to share out loud their ideas while I recorded them on the board.  We started with the Terrible Topics first.  Here’s their list:

Terrible Topic Ideas

  • School
  • Math
  • English
  • Social Studies
  • Science
  • Homework
  • Tests
  • Teachers
  • Principals
  • Police
  • The Law
  • Reading
  • Learning
  • Writing
  • Making fried chicken
  • Ducks

Their dislike of school, authority and poultry was quite clear – message received!

Here’s their list of Potential Project Ideas:

  • Making a Starburst tower
  • Making a volcano that spurts Gatorade
  • Skateboarding
  • Soccer
  • Inventing things
  • Learning sign language
  • Learning Japanese
  • Gardening (flowers not veggies)
  • Food
  • Cooking
  • Baking
  • Sewing clothes
  • Writing a book
  • Something to do with being outside
  • Making a house out of chocolate
  • Building something

I asked the question:  “Do you see a common theme in this list?”                                     One girl raised her hand and said, “We’re creative!”  Others agreed.



A Few Student/Teacher Exchanges

  • Martina: (smiling and animated) Mrs V, what’s that thing called when you grow a plant inside a jar?
  • Me:  A terrarium?
  • Martina:  Yes! That’s it.  I want to make one of those.  (pause)  But I also want to learn sign language.

This was the first time I saw Martina happy.  It was as if she couldn’t contain her excitement.  She was a different person.

  • Me:  Okay, Nadia let’s see what you put down for a possible project idea.
  • Nadia:  (Speaks but her voice is inaudible.  She’s hiding her thinking map)
  • Me:  Can I look at your paper?
  • Nadia:  (Shakes her head. Covers her paper more)
  • Me:  Would you repeat what you said?
  • Nadia:  (Extremely softly)  Can I invent something?
  • Me:  Yes! Of course! How cool?!?!

Nadia then proceeded to describe one of her inventions she created at home.

  • Angela:  Can I build something?
  • Me:  Yes.
  • Angela:  Good. Cuz, all I want to do is build a tower.
  • Sebastian: Can I do something on rap music?
  • Me:  It depends.  Some of the lyrics are explicit. This is a school project.
  • Sebastian:  (Shaking his head in agreement) Yea, I know. (Thinking)  I’ll stick to skateboarding.

This may not seem like a big deal, but Sebastian likes to be stubborn. His demeanor could have changed.  He could have announced that I’m being unfair and taken steps to undermine the project.  He didn’t.


Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 6.11.43 PMThe students’ energy is proof that this group would benefit more from an elective that taps into their creative side. That being said, being creative, showing empathy and being courageous isn’t limited to electives.  All three can be integrated into core classes as well.  Creativity and courage bloom when children are not only given multiple ways to show their learning but also when their process is validated. Empathy grows when students begin to understand how others think, process information and express their thoughts.

Ironically, this poster hangs on a wall by my work space at the District Office.  One of my schools doesn’t even offer art.

Other Genius Hour posts:


About jgvadnais

Instructional Technology Coach. Desmos Fellow. Google Level 1 Certified. SoCal transplant. New Englander at heart. Lover of yoga, dogs, green smoothies and coffee creamer
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7 Responses to A Genius Hour Brainstorming Session – A Wake Up Call

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