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Fall Creek Genius Hour

 For Fall Creek Elementary fifth-graders, each Friday is a chance to be a genius.
Students in Rebecca Edsall’s and Jennifer Visscher’s classes spend an hour each Friday participating in self-driven learning while pursuing projects based on their own passions and interests.
So far, the new initiative—known as Genius Hour—has sparked a variety of projects that solve problems, educate others, or serve the community.
Edsall said Genius Hour is inspired by a practice among Google employees, who are encouraged to spend 20 percent of their work time on pet projects that benefit the company. The self-directed research time led to the development of Gmail, Google News, Adsense and Google Glass, among other innovations.
During the hour, students are free to conduct research, test out ideas and work on presentations to give to the class later in the year. Some are coordinating service projects, others are researching subjects that interest them or problems they face, and still others are creating videos or prototypes to help them better explain their ideas. Teachers make sure students stay on task, but are largely hands-off, allowing kids to conduct their own research and solve any problems that may arise.
The initiative empowers students to drive their own learning. “It spurs their creativity,” Edsall said. “They’re in control of their own education.”
To start, students came up with a guiding question that required at least six hours’ worth of research to answer — “something that’s not easily Google-able,” Edsall said. Then, they gave a 60-second pitch to teachers and peers and received feedback to help further refine their ideas.
The students “gave each other better feedback than I could ever hope to do,” she said. “They’re teaching everyone, including me, in the room. They’re holding each other accountable.”
Projects range from the creative—a stop-motion video, a remote-control car built from scratch—to more serious subjects that have a community impact. One of Edsall’s students is researching affordable housing, while two more are making multilingual signs to be placed in locations throughout the school. A student is developing a gluten-free dish for her parents’ restaurant. Another is researching hypoallergenic dogs and how they may be used in school.
In Visscher’s class, students are collecting items for food pantries and homeless shelters, making a video about how to prevent child trampoline injuries, researching how to save the world’s 10 most endangered species, and testing how alpha binaural brainwaves help students better focus on math problems.
“We’re trying to get kids to think for themselves and direct their own learning. We see lots of different teaching moments come out of it.” Visscher said. “We’re learning how to scaffold kids to feel successful with something that’s so open-ended.”
Instead of just requiring students to regurgitate information, “this project brings out the best in kids who don’t normally thrive in that environment,” Edsall said. “It pushes everyone to achieve.”

Belle Sherman
Beverly J Martin
Cayuga Heights
Fall Creek
South Hill
Boynton Middle
DeWitt Middle
Ithaca HS
Lehman Alternative


Ithaca City School District
Dr. Luvelle Brown, Superintendent
400 Lake Street
Ithaca, NY 14850
(607) 274-2101