Friday, September 4, 2015

Releasing the Genius Within Your School

Aldous Huxley once said that the secret of genius is to carry the spirit of a child into an adult age, so that you will never lose your enthusiasm.

Think about the professional development that your teachers get over the course of the school year.
Think about the opportunities that you give your students to use their learning in meaningful, personal and engaging ways.

Are you wasting your school's true genius?  How can you uncover it?

Think about the hours that pass everyone by each year in professional development days, in common planning time, in time used to "guard" hallways and bathrooms and ask yourself what percentage of it truly enhances your teacher's ability to empower themselves or their students or to make the school a better place to teach and to learn.

Does your professional development happen in an auditorium?
Does everyone get the same message?
From a speaker who lectures to them with a PowerPoint?
Is one size fits all PD reaching people and changing their practice?

Or does it in any way resemble this?

To paraphrase Dave Burgess, "If teachers didn't have to be there, would you be professionally developing an empty room?

George Couros recently wrote about modern best practices for teaching and learning in his blog post, 8 Things to Look For in Today’s Classroom and I suspect that most professional development opportunities for teachers do not reflect what we want to see in our classrooms.

Voice – In your professional development opportunities, do your teachers have the opportunity to not only learn from others but also share their learning with others (or the community/the world) as well? 

Do your students?

Choice – How do your teachers further their learning in areas of interests to them?  Do they actually care about what you decided they needed to learn? Is it possible that they can better identify the things that will make them better or the school better than you could?

How about your students?

Time for Reflection – Do your teachers in PD and your students in the classroom have time to connect and reflect on what is being learned?  To work with others, to discuss and evaluate what is being learned?

Do your students?

Opportunities for Innovation – If given the time and opportunity to work with people who have similar interests, similar passions, what could your teachers create together?  

How about your students?  

What could they improve upon?  What could they make new or better? 

What could they do to change the school?  The community?  The world?

Critical Thinkers – To paraphrase Couros further for the purpose of our exercise: In the “factory model” of professional development, teachers are meant to be compliant and basically listen“to what they were told.”  As a result, the information taught by the outside "expert" (who is typically not a practicing educator) is not something that sticks with them, but creates “yes” people who tend to lose all originality (see video above).  

Rather than compliance, wouldn't your school benefit more from teachers and students who regularly practice the ability to research, to accumulate information and data, analyze and use it in order to make thoughtful choices and smart decisions about things that affect their learning, their practice and your school?

Problem Solvers/Finders –  Does your PD allow teachers to examine their practice or a problem or challenge within the school/community/world and then work to solve those problems?  Does it have a purpose of personal significance?  

How about what goes on in your classrooms with your students?

Self-Assessment – Does your PD allow teachers to determine whether what was conveyed was successful or not in real world practice?  Does it allow them to share their results with the school community and/or the world and get feedback and allow for reflection?

How about the learning experiences that your provide your students?  Does the learning and assessment/feedback that your students experience extend beyond your classroom?  Is it meaningful beyond simply pleasing you as the teacher, or merely getting a grade?

Connected Learning – Does your PD allow for teachers to connect with other practitioners and/or experts regularly to allow them to develop better outcomes?

Do your classroom experiences allow your students to communicate with and learn from experts?  To receive guidance and networking to further their learning and build upon your work?

Can you see a possible connection?  Does your PD inform your practice?

Ours has.  Ours does.  And we will continue to improve each year.

Would you like yours to as well?  

If so, I would like you to consider the brave step of turning over that time and power and control to your teachers and allow them to use professional development days, common planning time, and whenever possible/necessary, time used to "guard" hallways and bathrooms to unlock your faculty's genius through the use of Genius Hour for your professional development as we have for two years now.  

What is Genius Hour?  This video explains the framework nicely:

If you want to learn more, Joy Kirr (@JoyKirr) has curated an amazing live binder with nearly every aspect that can be applied to Genius Hour, it is definitely a resource that you can use to get yourself started.

The live binder also contains my previous posts on our process of turning over our PD to our faculty through the use of Genius Hour starting in 2013.  It includes all of my communication, planning and resulting projects that our faculty worked on that year.  At the time it was truly innovative and new.

In 2014-15 we continued with Genius Hour and even explored the idea of repurposing spaces within our school to allow for greater innovation and collaboration through a "Collab Lab."

As we enter 2015-16, we are looking to make both Genius Hour and the Collab Lab the hearts of our school improvement and professional development experiences.  In order for that to happen, we need to keep improving.

Here are our first steps:

1. Begin Facilitating Connections 

During the Summer, our Principal Michael Podraza (EGHSPrincipalRI) asked faculty to contribute to a set of "EGHS Faculty & Staff Profiles SY 15-16" Google Slides using the following format:


About Me- Insert Name & Position Here (and a picture)

  • I’m passionate about… 
  • I’m afraid of… 
  • It would like to collaborate on a lesson/unit about… 
  • My planning/duty periods are… 
  • You can best connect with me by...
So, in my case it read as follows:

Tim Chace - Assistant Principal
  • I’m passionate about... my family, relationships, teaching and learning, positively impacting the world around me, technology and sports (especially my kid’s teams).
  • I’m afraid of... disappointing anyone, letting them down. 
  • It would like to collaborate on a lesson/unit about… (1) “Genius Hour”/Choose2Matter/Creativity/Autonomy, (2) New Scheduling Options, (3) Restorative Justice/New Approaches to Discipline, (4) Creative writing/poetry and (5) Opportunities for students to create original, important or beautiful work for an authentic audience.
  • My planning/duty periods are... whenever you would like to meet.
  • You can best connect with me... in person or through G-Mail/Hangouts:
This process has multiple benefits.  The first is that we have a ready made set of schoolwide connections that can be made for genius hour projects.  An ancillary benefit is that I was surprised to learn a great number of things about our faculty and staff that I didn't know (win/win).

2. Finding the Time
  • Our school has a fairly unique weekly schedule.  On Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays we begin school at 7:33.  On Wednesdays we begin at 8:05. The half hour taken from the schedule each week was designed many years ago for interdepartmental common planning time.  Historically it was used at administration's discretion for PD and planning as directed.  But beginning in 2013, we turned it over to the faculty to work on Genius Hour projects.
  • Also in 2013 we began turning over most of our PD time to Genius Hour/collaboration.
  • Additionally, we allow teachers who have ongoing Genius Hour projects to be released from duty time whenever possible/necessary to continue their work/collaboration/research.
3. What's the Trade Off?

We need to improve our accountability and sharing of outcomes.  A big part of the framework is sharing your results back with the community and/or the world.  Many of our projects have done so, but there is a valuable give and take that we have been missing, so we hope to address that by:
    1. Devoting time during each monthly faculty meeting for teachers to share what they have completed, what they are working on or where they are stuck.  Feedback and assistance can benefit us all.
    2. Using the Collab lab for the same purpose on Wednesday morning, as well as developing an idea generating incubator.
    3. Encouraging teachers to share their projects and work with a larger audience beyond the walls of the school. We are doing some amazing things here and there are many schools who could benefit from our experience.
    4. I will blog about our progress on a more regular basis as well.  This transparency will benefit others in the same ways as outlined in #3.
I look forward to the year and the great things that we will innovate and accomplish as a faculty.

What about the students?

In addition to turning over PD and other time to the faculty, we also empower our students in similar ways.

As a first step, we are looking forward to the genius of our entire school community being unleashed again on November 23rd and 24th, when will be closing down the school and allowing students, faculty and the community to work autonomously on projects and to create organizations centered around what breaks their hearts and/or what matters most to them and then to make positive changes to their sphere of influence and the world.

In order to empower the school to move beyond theoretical constructs, our school will once again bring in leaders, experts and decision makers from all over the state and the country to act as facilitators, sounding boards, connections and mentors as ideas that can change the world go from thought to action.

Here are some links with information about the event (and a list of the mentors from the last session in the first link) and press surrounding the event and outcomes: 

My blog post just prior to our 2014 Choose2Matter experience.
A reflection on the Choose2Matter experience with Shannon Firth (@shannonfirth)
Choose2Matter as seen through social media.
And just one of many outcomes from the experience.

In planning this experience at an early date, we can use the remainder of the school year to find more and more opportunities for our students to learn autonomously, to build and develop projects and organizations and products of personal significance.  To use that classroom learning that happens under the silos of "subjects" in a real world and personally significant context.

To unleash their genius.

Moving forward from Choose2Matter this year, we will be working as a faculty to design more systems, schedules and opportunities to make our student's learning more autonomous, more personal, learning that reinforces that their studies are important, and where they can apply what they are learning in complex and personally meaningful ways.

As Anna Pavlova said, "No one can arrive from being talented alone, work transforms talent into genius."  I am certain that you have a great deal of talent in your school community as well.

So, what are you going to do to release the genius within?
Please share it with the world.


  1. Tim love the post. I'd love to visit with folks from the district.

    1. You are welcome any time, Jim. Just give Michael or I a call.