Ask an Academy Expert: Liz Mendonca

Genius Hour

What do an underwater speaker designed to facilitate shark research, a model “City of the Future” that combats climate change, and playlists cultivated to support folks during times of grief have in common? These are just a few of the projects tenth grade students created for their culminating Genius Hour project in a unit focused on defining success. During the final six weeks of the unit, students dedicated 20% of class time (one day a week) to solving a problem – ranging from individual to global, personal to technical to humanitarian. 

Genius Hour is my favorite time of the year. Students have a lot of autonomy in selecting a problem they find worthwhile then brainstorming and designing solutions. They have to submit formal proposals, write a mission statement, schedule a time table of personal benchmarks, and check in with photos and writing each week. Most of the time, students are so invested in their topics (because they got to have ownership of their choices) that they don’t realize all the skills they are practicing throughout the process: time management and planning, communicating with peers, teachers, mentors, experts in their field, research, collaboration, creative problem solving, self-advocacy, and perhaps most importantly, how to respond to failure. 

What do you do when the materials you need are sold out and on back order? When that person won’t respond to your email? When there isn’t a date or time available to host your event? When learning a skill is much harder than you thought it was going to be? When you finish your product and it breaks the first time you try to use it? Being able to adjust their plans when obstacles arise, to rescale their final goal, to seek alternative solutions or experts, to give themselves some grace, to acknowledge that this is hard: these are the most important skills they learn.

The final step in the project is for students to reflect on their process and record presentation videos which their classmates view and offer praise, questions, and critiques. This step closes the loop so students are acknowledged and appreciated for their work and creativity. Parents and faculty also have access to the presentation videos so they can share in celebrating the work of their students. Genius Hour teaches students that there are multiple paths to success and that geniuses come with varied skills and passions. 

A few super cool projects from this year:

Mariel designed a low frequency speaker to be used by shark researchers. This solves the problem of researchers using chum to bait sharks, which perpetuates the myth of shark attacks and sharks’ aggression.

Sara Paige used her art and business skills to sell watercolor holiday cards. All profits were used to adopt an angel from the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree. Sara Paige was able to provide clothes and toys for a young woman in our community during the holiday season.

Sterling researched music therapy and designed a series of playlists with music cultivated to address different types of grief. 

Salem focused on mental health, specifically anxiety, and designed and stitched a “pause patch” – a healthy coping mechanism that a person can use when feeling overwhelmed, to focus their attention on and fidget with.

Cooper hosted an event on campus for students to learn about and appreciate the work that goes into being both a successful performing arts student and athlete at CFA. Hayes built a model “city of the future,” which employs a number of strategies that combat climate change.

-Liz Mendonca, Upper School English Teacher