Little Einsteins

Sixth graders explore their passions through Genius Hour


Catharine Richards, Writer

Sixth grade offers plenty of exciting new opportunities, including being at a new school, meeting new friends and taking new classes. But this year, the sixth graders are taking things even further and learning new things about themselves through “Genius Hour”.
This year has posed all sorts of challenges, and while usually middle school students have a technology class, that just was not possible this year. Faculty member Krista Barbour had to get creative for her sixth graders. “Normally I do this huge project in tech, but we need laptops to do that or desktop computers, and since we can’t use those, everything I normally do in the tech class you can’t do on an iPad,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to do Genius Hour, and so that’s what we’re doing.”
So what is Genius Hour? “Genius Hour actually came out of [Google], and they call it ‘20Time’ and give their employees twenty percent of their time to work on a project that they’re passionate about. It could be a personal project, perhaps [something to] eventually help the company out,” explains Barbour. “So that’s the idea of it: basically gifting kids 40 minutes a day to pursue something they’re passionate about or that they’re interested in or they want to learn more about but they don’t have time to.”
The sixth graders have the freedom to pursue whatever piques their interest. From writing books to creating sellable goods, they are covering all the bases. “It’s really cool how they’re just taking charge and doing it,” says Barbour. She adds that giving students the ability to grow and explore their natural curiosity is an important part of their development.
“My favorite part of the project is that they have to interview an expert in their field,” says Barbour, “so once they figure out what their project is they have to find someone who’s an expert and conduct an interview with them and incorporate what they’ve learned from that person into their whole process.” The sixth graders took initiative by contacting, emailing and scheduling interviews with experts in various fields. “Someone interviewed . . . someone made a board game, so they interviewed a person who owns a board game store downtown and [another student] who made dog toys got in touch with a woman from a charity in Kansas City and interviewed her,” says Barbour.
“Three girls handmade some things like dog toys and stress balls, and then they went downtown and sold them in front of Arizona Trading [Company] on Saturday and made like $100 to donate to a charity,” says Barbour. Extending learning outside of the classroom is one of the bigger goals of this project.
The sixth graders then presented all their hard work to their peers in the form of a TED Talk and detailed all the ups and downs of their project. “They have to talk about how they failed, and I tell them ‘If you didn’t fail, you’re not trying hard enough,” Barbara says.
“I’ve liked singing my whole life basically,” says sixth grader Lillian Meier. “I wrote a song, because when I was little, I found out that I sounded pretty okay and I wanted to be famous [for] writing a song . . . I just wanted to write a song really badly.” While Meier easily found a path for her project, it was not completely without difficulties. “I had a lot of help, and the person that helped me [plays] the piano and they can’t bring their piano to school, so we didn’t know what we were going to do so that was really hard.”
In her end-of-class presentation, Meier addressed how she worked to overcome her setbacks. “Mine was about the wall of frustration you’ve got to break through,” she says. “Some people have a really thick wall if they’re homeless or they don’t have anything, but my wall was pretty thin. I’m still not all the way through.”
“I made a board game because I am really interested in board games and I love playing them,” says sixth grader Lucien Brockhoff. “I thought it would be really cool to make my own board game.” It is not often that students are given opportunities like this to explore their personal interests in school.
About his favorite part of the project, Brockhoff says, “Honestly it was really interesting to interview and present and all that stuff, but I feel like the most fun thing was just making a board game. Just being in class and creating something really cool.”
“The purpose is more just pursuing what you’re interested in and reflecting on how that whole process is going,” says Barbour. “It was embedded in their natural curiosity.”