So What Do YOU Want to Learn?

The first day I introduced Genius Hour to my students, I asked, “How many times over your entire school career has anyone asked you what you want to learn?”  I teach high school seniors, so this question created more reflection than if I taught young students with only a few years of learning under their belts.  My Advanced Placement seniors looked totally baffled, which was a new experience for some of them.  “It’s true,” said one student, perplexed.  “No one’s ever asked me what I want to learn.”

There was never a genius without a tincture of madness. — Aristotle

Before this school year, I was also guilty of not asking students what they were curious about studying.  If you saw the pages of Economics benchmarks and AP Psychology objectives that students must learn in my classes, you wouldn’t ask students for their opinion on much.  I’ve learned a few things over the last year or two that have helped to change my mind.

Think about your typical school PD session.  For years, I sat through PD sessions that killed my desire to teach.  Two years ago, several required hours of PD had gone unplanned, and teachers were told to put together our own PD.  While it still felt like a hoop to jump through, soon teachers were exploring topics, strategies, and programs that interested them.  It was the best mistake ever.  Teachers grouped together to research topics they had wondered about but didn’t have the time to explore otherwise.  Soon teachers were collaborating and even developing websites for colleagues on topics they were passionate about, from PBL to flipped learning.  I wondered why we don’t conduct PD in that way all the time.  When given the time, I am excited to learn about educational strategies and instructional technology in any way that I can.  When given the time, I am happy to share what I’ve learned with other teachers.

Is it the same for our students?  I think it is.  We use all kinds of strategies to make them interested in what we think they should learn or what we are forced to teach.  But I’ve learned over 13 years of teaching that it’s a rare high school student who is passionate about learning economic theory.  And while students see my passion for all things psychology, it doesn’t necessarily translate into their passion.  I feel successful if they develop an appreciation for the science and look at life with a psychology perspective, but not all of them continue on to study psychology in college (though I want to hug the ones who do).

Genius Hour gives students one hour a week in your classroom to find their passion, to explore a topic of their choice in depth and over time, to research, think, and collaborate, and then to publish and share their reflection with the world through a personal blog. At the end of the project, students present their reflections in a TED-type presentation to their classmates and members of the school or community.  Before jumping in, I spent a lot of time reading about Genius Hour and how other teachers have made it work in their classrooms.  You can view the list of resources I have collected about Genius Hour here

I started implementing Genius Hour at the beginning of our second trimester in late November, and my students continued their Genius Hour projects through  May.  I only offered Genius Hour in my AP Psychology classes because it’s a year-long course, and I know exactly what activities that I can whittle down or cut without skimping on content.  The other courses I teach are one trimester courses lasting 12 short weeks, and I will have to look hard at my plans to decide what I can change about the curriculum.

The initial excitement about Genius Hour in my classroom led me to propose Genius Hour as an elective for the 2014-2015 school year, and the proposal was approved by our curriculum council. I’m a little nervous about how it will progress — it definitely was not all joy and cheer throughout the process — but I’ve learned a lot this year about success, failure, and student motivation, all of which will change the way I guide my students.



Finding Happiness through Your Strengths

As an AP Psychology teacher, I know my students are always fascinated with mental illness — admittedly, so am I.  If you can turn off Hoarders or My Strange Addiction, you clearly have some sort of superpower I don’t possess. Psychology has done an incredible job of cataloguing the many interesting ways human behavior can go wrong.  But we can also learn from human behavior that is going right.  Positive Psychology is a growing field that shifts the focus away from defining and treating mental illness to studying mental health so that we can learn to be more proactively psychologically healthy and happy.

A few years ago, I read the book Authentic Happiness by  Dr. Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Network and former president of the American Psychological Association.  Dr. Seligman writes about how to experience happiness in your life by using your signature strengths to achieve flow and positive emotion. Seligman argues that even happiness can be learned, and I think it’s so cool that my students could learn how to be happier in life.  Learning how to be happier goes beyond any classroom curriculum.  It’s my goal to be able to share with my students some of the keys to achieving happiness in their lives, and we always spend time towards the end of the year studying the science and research behind happiness.  

So what’s the point of discovering your strengths?  In Authentic Happiness, Seligman argues that cultivating your strengths can benefit your health, relationships, and your career.  Much of his book concerns discovering these strengths and how to use them to increase happiness.  You can take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths to determine your top strengths.  The survey takes around 25 minutes to complete, but it’s time well spent if learning your strengths can increase your level of happiness, right?

Before taking the survey, I had never considered my cautious behavior a strength.  In fact, I’ve always assumed people who were less cautious were probably having more fun.  I’ve tried to rebel against my top strength — but my most reckless behavior is probably my tendency to overdose on Nutella (come on, you have a Nutella problem too, admit it and maybe we can start a support group together).  As I look back, my top strength has served me well in my life.  I am careful about what I say and do, and as a result, I don’t have many regrets . . . until I’m looking at the bottom of the Nutella jar.  Instead of rebelling against that strength, I can recognize ways that it helps me to be a happier person. Humor and playfulness and love of learning are a part of my everyday.  If I’m not learning something new, I feel stagnant — and you can count on my nerdy jokes along the way.  I can work my favorite Snoop Dogg joke into any lesson plan.  No matter how they do on standardized tests, my students will know why Snoop Dogg carries an umbrella.*


My Top Strengths

My students are working on Genius Hour blogs weekly, and I asked them to take the VIA Survey to determine their top strengths and to post their results.  I loved seeing how their results fit their personalities.  I hope that identifying their strengths will lead my students to use strengths to increase the happiness in their lives.  Here are just a couple of their thoughts on their VIA results:

“Having a future mindset will definitely help me accomplish my goals in life and humor and zest will help the journey be more fun.” – M.F.

“I never really thought of being interested in the world as a strength. Like, I’ve always been curious, and have always loved to learn. I guess I’m just now realizing that being curious will make me a smarter and more well-rounded individual, and therefore more valuable to work and other people.” – M.R.

If you have the time, take the VIA Strengths Survey.  How will you use your top strengths to increase your happiness? How might it help your students to know their strengths?

*Why does Snoop Dogg carry an umbrella?  For drizzle.  HA!

Augmenting Classroom Reality

It’s a whole new world out there, people, and it’s a world where reality is augmented.   If you haven’t had a chance to play with augmented reality (or “AR” for the edtech nerds out there),  you need to try it!   Why?  Because it’s FUN.  And it also steers learning towards the all important creation end of dear ol’ Bloom’s taxonomy.

AR apps work almost like QR code readers, allowing you to scan in any image and make magic happen.  I like using Aurasma, which allows you and your students to create “auras” that you attach to images.  When you scan the image with your phone, the Aura appears as an overlay.  The best way to explain it is to see it in action.

In the first week of school, my students completed a Google form attached to my class website asking them to indicate what kinds of technology they can bring to the classroom.  I was thrilled to see almost all of them carry a smartphone with them.   Out of 67 AP Psych students, only two do not have access to technology in their pockets.  To make this lesson work, I put students into groups and made sure each group had at least one person with the ability to download Aurasma on their phone.

Last week, I introduced my students to Aurasma (follow @Aurasma on Twitter).   First we watched the above video to give them an idea of what they can do with Aurasma.  Immediately, most of the students reacted positively.  Some of them downloaded the app that minute and started playing, attaching Auras to our textbook cover and their IDs.  Within a few minutes, one student had already started to create an Aura for her boyfriend professing her undying love.  This is what it’s like working with teenagers.

Then I introduced the assignment.  In previous years, my AP Psychology students have created trading cards on famous psychologists, including information on birth and death dates, popular works, occupation, and contribution to the field.  This year, I gave the same assignment, but they had to work in groups to create Auras for their psychologists.

We spent one full class period in the library to give them room to move and shoot video if necessary.  They also needed to print images to link up with the Auras they created.  A few of the groups who went above and beyond my expectations needed another 20 minutes or so to wrap things up in class the next day.   We discovered it was important for each finished product to include the Aurasma account name of the creator so that the rest of us could follow their account and gain access to their work.  Reminders of the importance of digital citizenship ensued (“Yes, students, I will have to follow you on this app.  Be sure you ONLY create Auras I can brag to your parents about.  Because I MUST FOLLOW YOU to see your work.  And I have a weak stomach.  I’m speaking to you, Girl with the Boyfriend.”)

I’m including some of their products below, and I’m proud of their creativity and the time some of them devoted to making me laugh. They know I always grade more generously when I’m smiling.  To view their Auras, download the app (it’s free!) and search for their account name, then follow them and scan their images.

We did run into a few technical issues here and there, so there may be videos you can see but not hear.  And some of the images used are too small to be scanned online, so you may have difficulty seeing all of the Auras created below.  We also discovered that different groups that used the same image to scan may have the wrong video pop up!  While we have  yet to perfect the process, I think our next attempt will be much more successful.

I would love to hear your comments on their work!

Follow "megatronxtreem" on Aurasma

Follow “megatronxtreem” on Aurasma

Search for sparklearkles and find her AP Psychology channel to follow. Hover over picture of Rogers, sun, moon, and thought bubble.

Search for The furious 5 and follow their channel to learn about Edward Thorndike.

Search for The furious 5 and follow their channel to learn about Edward Thorndike.

Follow calientesparkles to learn about John Watson.

Follow calientesparkles to learn about John Watson.

Follow kFields13 to check out G. Stanley Hall.

Follow kFields13 to check out G. Stanley Hall.


Follow michaela97 to learn more about Thorndike.


Follow casshole (yes, that’s right) to learn about William James.


Follow adtrosin to discover why Carl Jung is so important. Don’t miss the bloopers on the next image!!


Follow ColleenRoss to learn about BF Skinner.

Follow ColleenRoss to learn about BF Skinner.

Follow AnthonyPlate to learn about Wilhelm Wundt.

Follow AnthonyPlate to learn about Wilhelm Wundt.

Follow CaitlinStout to discover William James' importance in Psychology.

Follow CaitlinStout to discover William James’ importance in Psychology.

Follow Youjustkeepbeingyou to learn about BF Skinner and his work in Psychology.

Follow Youjustkeepbeingyou to learn about BF Skinner and his work in Psychology.

This is the reverse side of the above aura, which can also be scanned.

Follow bigsteve96 to catch up on G. Stanley Hall.

Follow bigsteve96 to catch up on G. Stanley Hall.

You know who to follow!  TKKyro can tell you about this famous psychologist.

You know who to follow! TKKyro can tell you about this famous psychologist.

Other ideas for augmenting work:

  • School newspaper or yearbook — augment sporting or performance events so when you scan the image of the event (football game, music concert, spring musical, pep rally), you can see video footage of an exciting moment from that actual event.
  • Resumes or business cards — what if your intended employer could scan your resume and hear you explaining some of your skills or qualifications?
  • School pride — students could place Auras around the building explaining the history of the building or important features of the school.
  • Textbooks — I plan on having students augment images from the textbook to link to videos of some of the important psychology experiments we discuss in our curriculum.

These teachers have more to say about Aurasma:

What do you think?  How might you use AR in the classroom?