Genius! Motivating the Apathetic

geniusBy Zac Leonard How can we inspire innovation in our students?  This question has haunted me for the past few weeks.  I spent the past two years working as a dean in charge of discipline at a local middle school.  Those years are a blur as I look back on them, but what I struggled with was inspiring students to innovate in their classrooms or circle of influence.  As I look back on it, I know it’s a stretch for a dean who primarily works with discipline, to inspire students and staff towards new instructional strategies.  However, that was and is my passion, I long to see people find their passion and work towards whatever it is they love.  I left that position to become an 8th grade ELA teacher, and for those who view my career path, it would seem that this was a backward move.  If I'm totally honest, I struggled with this idea for a while as well.  My time at Lecanto Middle School has been very much like Luke’s time on Dagobah. I came here seeking to figure out where I was going in life, and not only did I fall in love with writing, but also I found how I can easily provide my students with the time to explore their passions. Creating an environment for student innovation comes from setting a vision and then allowing them to be pulled by that vision.


As instructional leaders, we have to remember that our vision is what sets the tone for our classroom, our department, or our school.  Starting any initiative just to be on the cutting edge of teaching and learning isn’t the answer.  The idea of Genius Hour has been a hot topic in the EdTech world for the past few years. #EdTechAfterDark did a chat on it on March 21st, and you can view a transcript of that chat here. In that chat, we saw a lot of teachers long to implement some passion project time in their classes, but they are inundated with requirements, from programs to ensure benchmark mastery, to PD sessions on topics that on their own are beneficial, but not driven by the passion of the teacher.  Our classes have successfully instituted Genius Hour, but it’s not because we don’t have other requirements, or because we are skirting our responsibilities.  We have purposely built our curriculum to allow for student innovation.  That means that students are reading multiple passages and then writing essays on them in four days, instead of five.  We also instituted the use of Success Maker with our advanced students to ensure they are reaching benchmark mastery, but that had to go into our four-day week as well.  Fridays for us are Genius Hour days; our students have come to expect they will be working not on a specific subject during my class, but on how all of those subjects combine into a real world skill they are passion about that every Friday.

I feel I have to prepare my students for the world we live in, not this one…


That’s why I instituted Genius Hour in my class, as I planned I reflected, “even if their projects don’t work out, the process is about learning how to fail successfully, and move towards success.  My students would still be better informed about something they love; they would practice their writing, and learn more about the real world.”

What if instead of doing what we’re comfortable with, we focused on what students wanted to learn about, and fit our benchmarks into that field?  Brian is an 8th-grade student at my school, he’s in Alex’s class and has been the perfect example of how we can use student passion to teach basic skills.  Brian’s genius hour project is on becoming a successful DJ.  He purchased a mixer, a set of scratch pads, and the required music to mix for the events he planned on working.  He practiced day and night sending Alex, and I tweets to give us updates…



Well, Genius Hour has not prepared me in a way but has motivated me, motivated me to pursue the things I want or love to do. Well, I can say that that specific aspect of the Genius Hour has broken me out of that shell that once held a shy Brian. - Brian


Tucker is another student at our school; he wanted to create a cheap, reliable, and durable computer that could be used in difficult situations from war zones, to mountain villages.  He researched Raspberry Pi and purchased one.  He then took an old ballistics case from a gun and installed the computer parts into this case.  He also epoxied a 7-inch screen to the front of the case and connected it together with a lithium battery.  When he brought it to school, I was blown away…

“Genius Hour has helped me allocate time, prioritize my goals, and determine how quickly I should work on an assignment either I want to do on my time, I receive on a job, or in college Genius Hour has also helped me be more creative.” – Tucker


Jason is an 8th-grade student who wanted to give back to the community that accepted one of his family members when they were in a dark place.  He stated in his Youtube video that even though this person could never pay back what they received, he wanted to in their place. Jason started collecting socks from across the country to help the local homeless community. Genius Hour has helped me allocate time, prioritize my goals,and determine how quickly I should work on an assignment either I want to do on my time, I receive on a job,or in college Genius hour has also helped me be more creative.Genius Hour has helped me allocate time, prioritize my goals,and determine how quickly I should work on an assignment either I want to do on my time, I receive on a job,or in college Genius hour has also helped me be more creative.

 “Genius Hour has taught me some valuable skills for life after high school. One of the biggest things it has helped me realize is that you cannot go through life procrastinating everything. I knew I had six months to do this project, and it wouldn't be as simple as writing a quick essay the night before the due date. Another key valuable is it has helped me realize the power of compassion. If it hadn't been for this project, I would have never dreamed of starting an Organization to collect socks for the homeless.”- Jason

There are countless other examples of students doing amazing things.  These are just a few of the students who have inspired us to move away from our comfort, and try something a little inspiring.