DMS Students Pursue Their Personal Interests During Genius Hour Projects Promote, Support, and Model Creative and Innovative Thinking
Two eighth grade girls work on games that they hope will help people with cerebral palsy. A seventh grader crosses his fingers as he tries to boot up his newly built computer. A sixth grade girl prepares flyers to promote a clothing drive at school that she hopes will provide used clothing to help those in need.
It's all part of Genius Hour, a new program that happens on most Fridays at Dorseyville Middle School. Principal Jonathan Nauhaus introduced the concept last summer, and teachers serve as mentors to the students. According to DMS teacher Peggy Perdue, students were asked to choose something they felt passionate about, something they wanted to explore, as well as to be creative and take an idea and develop it into a project. Students submitted their proposals on Google Docs. The only other requirements are that students must keep a log and update it weekly, conduct research, and make a presentation. Projects are, for the most part, individual, although students are allowed to work in small groups. Projects can last for several months or up to three years (through eighth grade). Some of the students are designing and conducting fundraisers for worthy causes and many of the students are working on service projects.
According to one of the Genius Hour teacher coordinators, Jessica Painter, "The students have been given a voice in what they want to study and they have not disappointed."
Mrs. Perdue is enthusiastic about the new program. "I think Genius Hour is a good idea. It gives students some time and freedom to explore a topic they are interested in instead of focusing on the regular curriculum."
Each student has a unique reason for choosing what he or she is working on. Eighth graders Regan Hill and Cara Himmel have been testing how games can help young people with cerebral palsy. The project is especially important because Cara says, "I have cerebral palsy." She explains how in one game, "Regan calls out what hand I should catch [a ball] with and then throw it back." They hope that the exercise will help her strengthen her right side, and in turn, help other young people with cerebral palsy.
In the auditorium, approximately 20 students are passionate about working with animals and pets including seventh graders Isabella Lagazzi and Ben Mabon, who are learning about pet therapy so they can teach Isabella's five-year-old golden retriever to obey commands. "She has to obey so she can help," Isabella says. Interestingly, Isabella and her family moved to Fox Chapel Area from Chile less than two years ago, so the dog is "bilingual." Ben has discovered, "She likes Spanish better than English." Isabella says, "She's good with people." Ben adds that the next step will be to take the dog into different classrooms to visit. The two hope that if the dog interacts well with different students, they will be able to find a trainer to prepare the dog to become a therapy dog that visits patients in hospitals.
In another classroom, sixth grader Rachel Chang has an older brother and younger sister who both had to spend time in an intensive care unit. Claire Ellermeyer's mother works at Magee Women's Hospital of UPMC. "I told her, 'Mom, we're going to do something with Magee! Yay!' " Rachel and Claire are working together to gather fabrics and materials to make quilts and fleece blankets. Even with infant warmers, "some babies are cold and the fleece will keep them nice and warm," Claire explains. She and Rachel have been contacting fabric stores seeking donations to make their blankets.
Mrs. Perdue says she uses project-based learning in the classroom extensively, and she likes that "Genius Hour models the real world as students decide on what they are doing, create a plan, follow through with the plan, and then present it to others. They learn valuable skills such as time management, documentation, communication, and how to present their findings." She adds, "Many of the projects students are working on benefit others in addition to the student."
The 12 students, including both boys and girls in all three grades, in Mrs. Perdue's group are all working on community service projects. Eighth grader Grace Wiegand had observed that the residents in a long-term care home seemed to be depressed. She did research to determine if this is a common occurrence or just an observation she made. She then created 54 handmade valentines that she hopes will make the residents smile. "I hope their days are brightened by the notes and that they enjoy their time there and that it makes it seem a little bit more like home," Grace says. She will do her presentation after the activities coordinator at the long-term care residence emails her to let her know the residents' reactions. She plans to continue the project throughout the rest of the school year.