At Genius Hour, students' interests drive learning

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Special to the Herald

Enter Kristen DelBonis’ fourth-grade class on any given Thursday afternoon and you’ll see students scattered throughout the room.

Some are in groups or partners, some are working alone. But no matter the grouping, they are all hard at work and engaged in their learning.

Look closer and you’ll notice not one group is working on the same thing as another. Some might be researching how the Sun was made, while others are finding out more about leukemia and still others are delving into the mechanics behind electrical towers. Posters, tri-fold boards and three-dimensional models featuring the results of their research are taking shape as the students work.

It’s Genius Hour, and DelBonis has paired up with her partner, fourth-grade teacher Kim Regelman, during the fourth-grade chorus time to give those students who aren’t choosing to partake in the chorus another option.

The unique aspect of Genius Hour is that it is all driven by students and their interests rather than teacher-directed. The students choose to work alone, with a partner or in groups, and they brainstorm what it is they’d like to learn more about. Once they’ve brainstormed together and have chosen a question to research, the questions are submitted to Ellen Basso, the school librarian, who in turn sets up safe sites on the school’s library page for the students to access for their research. The students must also brainstorm together and agree on their choice for a final product, which will be used during their oral presentations.

“We really wanted them to be able to drive their own research,” Regelmann said. “They choose their project, they find their facts and they decide what product they want to present.”

The work is completely interest-based, and as one circulates around the room, it’s clear that every student or group of students has a “why” when asked about their chosen topic. When asked about their choices for topics, oftentimes the answers include phrases such as “I always wondered why,” or “I was inspired to learn more about.” The inspiration may have come from a book they’ve read in class, such as one student’s research about leukemia, which came from his regular classroom work in Literature Circles.

“The Literature Circles book was ‘Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,’ and the main character has leukemia,” DelBonis said. “He was inspired from that classroom activity to learn more on his own about the disease. Choice is really such an important part of this.”

Peter Zaytounian said he was inspired by his first Genius Hour project about black holes to take on another project that was space-related, this time choosing to learn more about the Sun and how it was created. Ella Grenier and Thalia Almond-Frias knew that dogs could not see color, and had wondered why people sometimes can be color blind as well.

This is the second round of Genius Hour research, with the first having taken place during the first part of the school year. The finished products from that round are still on display in Regelmann’s classroom. With the first round completed, some tweaks were made such as making sure all research questions are clearly stated on the final presentation product, which wasn’t required last time, but helps to clarify what each project is about.

“They’re still using all their skills like reading, writing, research and communication,” Regelmann said. “There is a teamwork rubric and an oral presentation rubric.”

Principal Marisa Jackson was visiting the classroom during one recent Genius Hour, speaking with students about their topics and projects.

“This is one of my favorite hours of the week at Woodridge,” she said.

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