My Genius Hour Plan of Attack: Part II

The date has been set, October 1st my students will get a chance to get their genius on. I have spent the month scouring through materials and talking to colleagues about how to best make this work and I think I have come up with a plan that I am excited about and comfortable with too.

Here is what our first day will look like:


I am planning to begin with the Marshmallow Challenge. A big thanks to my partner in crime Carolyn (@cdurley) for passing this my way because I think it hits the nail on the head as being a great initial activity. In this activity students are given the task of building the highest structure they can with some basic materials to support a marshmallow. What excites me about this task is that it will help activate the ‘maker’ in students, reveal assumptions that marshmallows aren’t as lite as students thought, and help students understand that assumptions can sometimes be the number one factor inhibiting success. BTW, I create the sweetest playlist ever to play during the competition, pretty excited about that!!!

After this activity I have a series of videos I plan to show to help inspire (keep in mind at this point students still have no idea where this is going. I have kept them in the dark only telling them that we are about to begin something amazing this week):

  1. A Pep Talk from Kid President
  2. Cain’s Arcade
  3. Video highlighting the recent work of Ann Makosinski, a BC student who is helping to change the world.

It was important for me to end off with a video that had a local element. I want students to know that they too can create change, can be inventive, and can inspire. Lastly, I plan to talk to students about how I have been working hard to be a change agent over the last two plus years in the Flipped Classroom world. I also plan to show them a recent video I created which includes interactivity so students can see that I am taking risks myself and continuing to learn and play.

Finally, I will introduce GeniusHour to my students. Perhaps I should call it Geniusweek because that is how I have decided to run it:

  • Tuesday – Launch of GeniusHour.
    • Students learn about my expectations
    • We co-create criteria for the projects
    • Bad Idea Factory – Thx to Karl (@LS_Karl) for passing on this fabulous idea from Kevin (@brookhouser) of getting students to come up with ideas for their geniushour projects.
    • Research / making begins
  • Thursday – Checking in / more research / initial reflections
  • Following Wednesday  – Class Presentations

I choose to structure first geniushour attempt a little differently than most do. I want to do a number of these projects this semester, rather than just one big one. I have heard of teachers struggling to keep their students eye on the prize when the final project due date is so far away. This way there is a definitive endpoint. So, there it is, a rough outline of my game plan. I am planning to video most of it so stay tuned for a mash-up of all of our learning shenanigans and a blog post where I will look at what worked and what I will change for next time.

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More like a Starbucks…

I don’t even really like coffee that much but I like going to Starbucks (or any other coffee shop really…). I have never really dissected the experience until now as to why it works for me and the many millions out there but I suppose it must be the atmosphere… You get to drink fatty/sugary goodness and chase it down with equally healthy bakery treats, the service is often good (sometimes they’ll even remember your name if you frequent it enough…Hmmm, not sure I am proud of that), there are comfy chairs and couches, dim lighting to make me look better, hipster music, and even free wifi. What more could you ask for!?!?

My guess is that I am leaving out a number of different aspects that go into the physical makeup of such an establishment, but these are the things I notice. Regardless of why coffee shops like Starbucks work, they have become a meeting place in our society. When I want to catch up with an old friend, work on a project with a colleague, or find a calm place to study a coffee shops seems to like the go to place.  You feel comfy, safe, nobody is rushing you along…life is good. So this got me thinking, why can’t my room be more like a Starbucks? I mean nothing screams come on in and enjoy yourself like 30 sterile looking desks and chairs in precise rows, florescent lighting, and faded motivational posters from the 80’s (you know the ones!!!). So with that in mind, I tried to move my classroom as far away from what I used to know, while still staying within my means, to something what was perhaps a little more inviting…

I wrote about this concept in one of my first posts ever and now a couple years later some of those thoughts have come to fruition, here is my work in progress classroom:


My Classroom, my home away from home…lots of room to move around, a number of different areas to suit different students needs, tables instead of desks for easy collaboration, and above all…hopefully a great place to learn!


Couch seating area with dice stools that can be moved around. Couches are first come first serve, student enjoy the comfort and working with their colleagues.


There are 5 single thinkstations for students who want to work alone, watch a video in private, take a quiz/test, or anything else…


Pencil cases filled with whiteboard pens and erasers for use with our large portable classroom whiteboards (2 ft x 3 ft) and our individual graphing boards. Whiteboarding is definitely by new love when it comes to classroom math activities.


The 2nd Couch area…you may notice I like baseball, especially the Blue Jays. I have baseball posters, math posters, and lots of other shenanigans on the walls!


A single old school chalkboard!!! I don’t do a homework wall since my class is self-paced, so instead I list when the test deadlines will be, and as we derive formulas I allow my students to have them on the board.


The ‘MATHlete Hall of Fame’ – A tradition of mine…check out this link for more info:


A new addition this year! Thanks to Carolyn Durley for the inspiration…A fridge, a toaster, and a microwave + kettle (on the way). A watered/fed student is a happy student!!! (Those are the big portable whiteboards we use to the left)


Last, and least important….my desk. The orange chair is the hot seat!


Where the magic happens!

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My Genius Hour Plan of Attack (Part I)

Every once in a while I get so excited about learning something new I can’t stop. It is the equivalent of a book you just can’t put down or those rainy days when you watch an entire season of your favorite show. This is an element that I can’t say necessarily exists in my classroom, or the majority of high school classrooms I have seen. But what if it did? What if students were so grossly engaged they didn’t know they were learning and didn’t even want to stop? What if innovation and creativity found their way into high school classrooms?

Enter Genius Hour (aka: 20% Time, Passion Projects, etc.). Genius Hour gets its roots from Google. Google employees use 20% of their time to focus on projects they are passionate about so long as the project has the ability to move the company forward, and it has! So why not bring this to education?  Over the last couple of years a select few have. In genius hour students create projects they are passionate about but may not necessarily relate to the course curriculum (often because the projects are far ahead of it!). Genius Hour lends itself nicely to Elementary Classrooms because of the cross-curricular nature of this setting. Students can make projects that dabble in science, technology, and English all at once, what a beautiful thing. This got me wondering what it would look like in a High School math classroom.

Last year I experimented with a couple of these projects and they were hugely successful. So much of what we do in education is cookie cutter and I wanted this project to be far from this. As a result freedom was one of my main objectives. I didn’t want students to make me a project, I wanted them to create something for themselves; something they were proud of, passionate about, a project that pushed their learning. I wanted students to quit playing school and focus on something other than harvesting points. I students to take risks and do something extraordinary.  As you might imagine this was like a completely different language to them. So I decided to make project pass/fail. If students did the project to a high enough quality (we established a B) they would pass. If they didn’t they would not pass and would be required to redo it. This really seemed to blow them away because it was so foreign to them. Just like it was foreign to me when I took a pass/fail class in my Bachelor of Education degree program. I thought I would only do mediocre work since there was no incentive to work hard, in fact I think I worked harder and I took more risks. My students did the same…. I had a pair make a computer program that after multiple iterations designed a dragon fractal, another pair looked at the math of card-counting, a young lady looked at how we are mathematically running out of music, and another group proved that babies have number sense by a cool experiment they performed on their dog!

The feedback I heard from my students was through the roof and I couldn’t have agreed more. Many said it was their favorite math class ever, right from the research, creation, and presentation of the projects. But unfortunately I felt I only had time to do it once a semester. This year I plan to do things differently, so much so, that this is will be my main focus going into my third year of flipping my classroom.

I have taken a look at the learning outcomes and have identified areas that I can be more efficient and cut out the fat. So my goal is approximately once every two weeks we will spend an hour or two researching and creating projects to present a couple weeks after.

Over the next week I am planning to hammer out the specifics of what the projects will look like during our districts summer Pro-D days, this will make up part II of this blog post. During that time I’ll try to walk the fine line of giving students guidance on what Genius Hour projects can be while not stifling their creativity by giving them too much structure.

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The Interactive Flipped Classroom Video

Differentiation and hands-on learning have become hallmarks of my classroom ever since I embraced the Flipped Classroom. Time is now on my side and attributes like the aforementioned that seemed impossible to implement in my traditional classroom are now possible. Yet when I reflected on my Flipped Classroom videos they were one size fits all. Regardless of what prior knowledge students had, their work ethic, or their motivation to learn, they all were viewing the same lesson. My strongest learners were watching examples that they understood likely 5 minutes earlier but were still taking notes…On the other hand my weakest learners were not having steps broken down for them enough to help them move forward with a sound understanding.

When I created my initial Flipped Classroom videos I did my best to make them as engaging and interactive as possible. “Pause here and try the example on your own, then fast-forward to the solution to see if you got it correct.” “Now that you have finished the lesson write down one question you have that we can address in class.” This helped but still was not what my students truly needed.

With the release of Camtasia 8 in the summer of 2012 I had a complete shift in my thinking. Videos could be created to meet the individual needs of my learners. (See my previous post where I explain this further: Re-inventing the Flip Video). So this past week I thought I would give it ago. It was time consuming to make but I really feel it gives provides for a more student-centered learning experience. Here are some of the interactive aspects I included in the video:

  • Table of Contents – Students can navigate to what they need. Perhaps they don’t want to watch the examples or maybe they would like to watch an additional one. The student who wanted to review a concept that they remember was in the video can now go to exactly where it is rather that navigating blindly.
  • Embedded Questions – Students can tailor a lesson that meets their needs depending on how they answer a series of questions. If they respond one way they go in this direction, another response goes a different way.
  • Link to Manipulatives – A link to a manipulative is included to help bring some inquiry into the lesson.
  • FFW to Answer – Rather than having students pause the video and navigate the timeline to find the answer then can pause and click on the button that takes them to the solution.
  • Additional Examples – Buttons are placed at the end of examples to give students the option to watch another example.
  • Additional Resources – Links to other demonstration and resources for those students that struggle with my explanations or need to see things demonstrated in a different way.
  • Embedded Quiz – At the end of the lesson I have short quiz for my students to take. It assess low level understanding to see if students understood what the big ideas were in the video.
  • Statistics – I didn’t do this in this video but you can have student login to determine who watchedthe video, for how long they watched it, and also determine how well they did on the quiz. For those that love to keep student accountable to watch the video this could be huge. (I don’t btw, feel another post coming…)

For the interactive features to work best let the timeline fully load, here it is, let me know what you think!

Interactive Instructional Video

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My Assessment Model

I have recently had a number of questions regarding my implantation of mastery learning in my classes from those who read my thesis titled Student Perception of the Flipped Classroom or those who have seen some of my previous posts. I went through my posts and noticed I had never fully explained how I do things, so here we go…!

Mastery LearningIn a subject like math where the learning is scaffolded and continues building on itself mastery is crucial. Knowing 80% is great but what about the other 20%!?!? I really wanted to raise the bar for my students in hopes that it would raise their grades but more importantly give them a better understanding of mathematics and make future math courses much more successful for them.

By using Moodle, an LMS supported by our district, I created a database of questions that are sorted by learning outcomes and difficulty level so that I can give students different quizzes yet still be assessing the same concepts and making sure most students get a quiz of the same difficulty level.

I set the mastery ‘pass’ level at 70% as it was a benchmark I felt was attainable by all of my students. The philosophy is simple, if students can achieve 70% or greater on all of the quizzes the chance they achieve 70% or greater on their summative assessment is more likely. Those students who do not achieve mastery on their first attempt go back into the learning cycle and this is where the magic happens.

The magic is the learning. Students learn what they know and what they don’t know. I require that all students journal about the questions they go incorrect; they tell me why they made the mistake, how to avoid doing it in the future, and what the correct answer is. Quite often students don’t know how to get the solution on their own. They seek out their classmates, look through their notes, perhaps re-watch a lesson video, or ask me. Once students have feel they are ready to reattempt a quiz they touch base with me and I give them another attempt. More often than not students achieve greater than 70% and we are off to the races!

The quizzes that students take are completely formative in my class. Students can write their quizzes at home or at school. They can be written alone, with a friend, or even with Mommy! Students can use any resources that they have. By taking away the points from quizzes and focusing on if mastery learning has been met or not some amazing things have occurred. Quizzes are no longer stressful, students no longer dread them, in fact some students enjoy them so much they take them more than once. The quiz in my class has turned into a learning tool than an assessment tool. (The entire course grades comes from summative assessment tests, which students can rewrite if they feel they have not fully demonstrated their learning)

hotseatOnce students have achieved mastery in a unit and they feel confident to move on to their summative assessment we have a conversation together on the ‘Hot Seat.’ The Hot Seat is where I get a chance to have a one-on-one conversation with my students to see how things are going in a unit. We may go over some quizzes together, discuss some questions they have, or I may even grill them by asking them to summarize the unit or throw some questions at them. Lastly students show me their journal for the unit which has their quiz corrections, the journals prompts I have given them for the unit, and the summary of the unit they have made.

The process of having a conversation with my students prior to attempting a test has proved to be extremely beneficial. I am able to fill in any gaps that exist and intervene if students just aren’t ready. If a student is not ready for a test because they have not mastered the learning outcomes to a degree I am happy with or they have not completed the necessary work then they don’t take the test. It is as simple as that! Students need to earn their test and demonstrate that they are ready. I always thought it was a form of child abuse to put a test in front of a student and watch them stare blankly at it for an hour when both the student and I knew they were going to fail.

Since I run a self-paced classroom some students once in a while not prepared to write their test by my deadline. In this case they are required to attend my morning help sessions until they are ready to attempt their test. This has also proved to be hugely beneficial to my students. I wish I could give students enough classroom time to truly master every concept but unfortunately there just isn’t enough time. For those that need some additional TLC they can take it as long as they continue attending my early morning sessions. I can’t believe how appreciative students are to have some additional time to prepare themselves to perform well the first time on the test. I am strong believer that students should be assessed on what they know not how quickly they come to know it.

So there it is. The Flipped Classroom, mastery learning, and self-pacing all blended together into model that I feel gives my students the best way to understand the learning outcomes and demonstrate their understanding.

Handout you may find useful: Mastery & Self-pacing with Moodle

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Student Perceptions of the Flipped Classroom

Over the last two years I had the pleasure of completing a Master of Arts degree in Educational Technology at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. During this time I was pushed to think hard about my teaching practice, challenged to investigate new teaching methods, and encouraged to look critically at how I could best incorporate educational technology. It was experience that I enjoyed immensely and recommend to any teacher.

I decided to write my thesis on student perceptions of the Flipped Classroom. As a classroom teacher I wanted to know plain and simple if students enjoyed themselves and if they felt they were benefiting from the changes I made to my practice.

It is my pleasure to present to you my thesis titled ‘Student Perception of the Flipped Classroom.’

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Leaving the Flipped Classroom…

A couple weeks ago while taking a look at the Flipped Classroom hashtag (#flipclass) I saw a Flipped Classroom educator (name escapes me now) who said he would be going back to traditional lecture based instruction this next semester. His rationale, if I remember correctly, was to see how different his practice has become and to evaluate the pros and cons of each method.

Leaving the Flipped Classroom to learn more about ones teaching…this intrigued me and got me thinking of my own practice. Would this be a worthwhile venture for me? I am a strong believer in reflection and what better way to see how things have evolved than to step back and see what things used to be. Hmmm…

After some thought I realized I would be doing my students a disservice if I choose to go back to the way I used to teach. I wouldn’t be giving my students all I have to offer. I don’t flip my classroom because it is hip, I flip because it is the best of me. I feel that I am a better teacher as a Flipped Classroom teacher. Do I know that I am a better teacher? No. Do I have some anecdotal evidence that says I am? Yes, I suppose so, my thesis / student surveys / student gossip, but it is far from conclusive evidence. As a professional I make choices every day. Is that learning outcome as important as this one? Should that student write that test today? Is that student doing ok, she looks unhappy? This situation is no different. For a number of reasons, many which I have discussed in previous blog entries, I feel that what I bring to the table as a Flipped Classroom teacher is greater than when I don’t flip. I am not saying that this is the case for all teachers, but it is for me.

So I will NOT be leaving the Flipped Classroom. Leaving may provide me with some additional insight into my practice but the cost it would have to my current students is not worth it. I think as teachers we owe our students the best of us, whatever that may be. The best of me is when I am flipping.

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