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.

 

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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.*

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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!