Program allows Wis. students to pursue passions

  • Article by: NOELL DICKMANN
  • Associated Press
  • December 30, 2013 - 12:05 AM

OSHKOSH, Wis. — Emma McAllister, 16, has never entered one of her many short films in a festival, but when the West High School student learned her English 2 Honors class was trying something they'd never done before, the sophomore decided that she too, would venture into the unknown.

Kristi Levy, an English teacher at Oshkosh West High School, is heading a new initiative called Genius Hour with her students, who on Wednesdays work on a project they're passionate about.

Levy said the program, which she introduced this year, is about preparing the students for a changing world that requires them to be process-driven rather than product-driven.

"Everything that we're hearing about what skills are going to be valuable ... is that they need to problem solve, be critical thinkers and they need to be able to manage a project," she said.

"We can do that in an artificial way," she told Oshkosh Northwestern Media ( "Or we can say let's do it for real, reach out to the community, take on a project of your own creation and solve problems that you didn't even know existed."

It's based on a practice by companies like 3M and Google called 20 Time. For 80 percent of employees' time, they work on assigned tasks, and the other 20 percent is spent on a passion project of their choosing. Post-it notes and masking tape, Gmail and Google News were all created out of pet projects done on company time.

Levy felt a need to do try it with her own students after attending a national convention where she learned about using Genius Hour in the classroom.

Her students have taken on some intimidating projects, some of which she doesn't even know anything about, but her can-do attitude is encouraging.

"You wanna redesign the electric vehicle?" she said. "Awesome! I don't know anything about cars —but let's do it!"

Already she sees significant changes taking place within her students. They seem to value normal school assignments more than in the past, are more comfortable with being open during class, and have grown in their engagement and abilities to problem solve.

She feels like they appreciate that their ideas are being valued, which is empowering.

"I think that feeling in class transfers to everything else that we do," she said.

The 15- and 16-year-olds' projects go all across the board.

A group of five girls are planning to collect dresses for girls at the Boys and Girls Club, then have a community fashion show to model them this spring.

"It just started out as this little idea," Allison Nelson, 15, said. "And now it's this big thing and it's really exciting."

At times can be overwhelming — the question of 'What if we fail?' sometimes creeping in — but the girls' passion to make a difference keeps them chugging along.

Collin Grota and Aric Lippold based theirs off the TV show Barter Kings. They hope to trade items, each more valuable than the last, and eventually make a profit without spending a dime.

At least two girls are writing post-apocalyptic novels, and Molly Grasley is aiming to show her peers the importance of appreciating music from the past.

"I've noticed kids don't respect it or they just don't pay attention to it," said Grasley, who loves the Beatles.

Grasley likes the independence in Levy's class and the creativity the project brings out of her. She thinks Genius Hour is a really smart idea.

"They're teaching this in corporations and stuff," she said. "Why not just start early with high school kids?"

Even if projects end in failure, the sophomores can still get an A on the projects. Levy said if they can articulate their steps —what they tried, why it didn't work and what they'd do differently —that process is what they're graded on.

Not only are students excited about Genius Hour, parents are too. Levy learned during conferences that students who never bring up school are talking about their projects at the dinner table or working on them on their own time —which is never a requirement.

"I've gotten really positive feedback from parents," she said.

Genius Hour is affecting the teacher too. Levy said though she's always prided herself on connecting with her students, but this makes her feel like she never knew them before.

"Because the things that I've learned about my students and their strengths and their hidden talents and the things that really make them tick," she said. "I know my kids in a completely different way."

An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by Oshkosh Northwestern Media

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