Ignite Student Passions with Genius Hour

Capture the joy of learning by giving students the opportunity to showcase their creativity.

May 23, 2016
Tamara Letter
ITRT - Instructional Technology Resource Teacher
Hanover County Public Schools
Ashland, VA
CATEGORIES In the Classroom

Do you remember the days when learning was fun? Memorable? When the final bell rang and you didn't want to leave? In the times of standardization, how do we find balance between what we have to teach and what we want to teach? Many of us wonder if we can bring joy back into our classrooms. I think we can when we implement passion projects.

"If you can't figure out your purpose, figure out your passion. For your passion will lead you right into your purpose." -Bishop T.D. Jakes

Passion projects capture the joy of learning while integrating content areas of reading, writing, and oral communication. Students have the opportunity to showcase their creativity and shine from their hard work. Passion projects also have the power to change the climate of your classroom as students learn more about each other and their interests.

Almost 70 years ago, the international company 3M encouraged their employees to devote 15 percent of their work time to innovative projects that captured their interests and passions. More than a decade ago, Google did the same with their "20% Time." Both companies valued the spirit of innovation and productivity, which resulted in the creation of such products as Post-it Notes and Gmail. This concept of intentional time spent on projects of interest quickly morphed into the Genius Hour movement in education.

It's time to ask our students what they can imagine, create, or innovate when they dedicate one hour a week to investigating their passions. While an hour a week seems like an impossible sacrifice for pacing guides and scheduling constraints, creative teachers all across the world are finding ways to bring joy back into their classrooms. It was that mindset that opened the door to a collaborative partnership with Mrs. Bambi Feighner, a first-grade teacher at my school. We decided to jump in, calling our new endeavor Passion Projects.

Finding Joy in the Classroom in Five Steps


Before we introduced anything to the students, Ms. Feighner and I brainstormed our own passions together. We talked about things that made us happy and explored the "what-ifs" of being educators. Then we talked about how these questions made us feel. Surprisingly, the more we talked about our passions, the more excited we became. We weren't inundated with logistical worries but were empowered by the potential of "what if?" Wonder Wall

The excitement. The passion. The joy of learning -- that's what we wanted our students to feel. In class, we had students complete a similar activity where they brainstormed a list of things that made them happy. Then we encouraged them to stretch their thinking by identifying the areas they wanted to learn more about. We did this activity using sticky notes and pencils on a "Wonder Wall," though it could also be completed using technology with apps such as Padlet.


For Passion Projects, students needed to narrow their focus to one question they wanted to answer, which would drive their research. We added their questions to Google Sheets, which kept everything organized and easy to access. It also allowed us to collaboratively add resource links and additional information as we guided students through the research process. 


We knew we needed a good classroom-management structure to ensure students were staying on task and being productive as they worked through the research and creation phase. We chose a once-a-week center rotation to provide support and guidance, which also allowed time for content integration. One rotation helped the students read and take notes in their journals, while the second rotation guided students on the computer as they created a background image for their projects.

We employed both low-tech and high-tech options for research. Some student questions could be answered by reading a library book or a tourism brochure. Other questions required extensive internet research. For those in-depth questions, we found videos and screencasts that provided more information, such as how to make books or build a specific Lego figure. For struggling readers, we used Readability to remove unwanted ads and distractions from stories and articles, then used Screencastify to record ourselves reading articles for students.


We continued our weekly center rotations until the digital backgrounds were complete, then we started recording students individually as they shared what they had learned about their passion. While Pixie has a built-in audio-recording feature, we chose to use Camtasia for this final step. Students who were not recording worked on editing their stories or on other tasks.

As students naturally transitioned from research to creation, we noticed something different about our students: We had fewer discipline problems, and students were putting more effort into their reading and writing. They were engaged with their research. They were excited about their digital creations. They were helping their classmates. There were smiles, laughter, and joy!


Sharing is vital to the success of a passion project! Students showcased their projects with an authentic audience of classmates, teachers, parents, and administrators during a "Passion Project" Share Fair. As guests walked from laptop to laptop, listening to the student presentations, they not only validated the time and effort students had put into their work, but they also reaffirmed what we had already discovered: The joy of learning was ever-present!

We wanted to reach beyond the concrete walls of our school to share our projects with a larger community, so we created a Passion Project website and tweeted links on Twitter and Facebook -- talk about empowering! When students realized that their projects were being viewed by people all across the world, they took more pride and attention in their work and asked, "Can we do this again?"