Most days of the week, students go from class to class, reading from books, doing experiments, having discussions or solving math problems. However, every Wednesday afternoon at Somerset High School, students have the opportunity to pursue a passion, learn something new or try something different they normally wouldn't have room to fit into their schedules.
"This year at the high school, we started on Wednesdays doing an hour-long 'Genius Hour' for the last hour of the day. We had that time built into our schedule already, so we wanted to find a creative way to use that time other than just a study hall for kids," SHS principal Shannon Donnelly said. "We did a little brainstorming and we thought something along the lines of a Genius Hour would align with our new strategic plan."
For just under an hour every Wednesday, students in grades 9-12 get the chance to take part in a class taught by one of the high school's teachers on subjects that both teacher and students are passionate about.
"We really wanted to deliver some 21st century opportunities to our kids and really find some time during the day to allow our kids to find a topic or subject they are passionate about that they can pursue, learn about or create something," Donnelly said. "The time is dedicated toward something that either students don't have time to do in their traditional schedule or maybe learn about a new topic or subject that they always wanted to learn about but never had an opportunity to do."
With the start of second semester, students got another chance to pick a new Genius Hour class to take for the rest of the school year, which could include anything from music, to cooking, to art, to fitness and wellness.
"We've noticed some really great things since we started this at the beginning of the school year. One of those is some really great connections between students and staff in the building that probably never would have occurred, never knowing that we had certain staff members that were artistic and musically inclined," Donnelly said.
Among many subjects and projects students are working is a food truck that students will run during Pea Soup Days every summer, an ACT prep hour, a leadership class, a fitness and wellness course, a mock trial group and a computer programming class.
"They are working on the foundation of what do they want the food truck to look like and what do they want it to sell, and how do they construct a food truck," Donnelly said. "We wanted to make it something where kids could take a break from school, if you will, and really kind of dig into and use those creative pieces that are really important to deliver a 21st century education to our kids."
Prior to the implementation of Genius Hour, students spent the last hour of the Wednesday school day in a school-wide study hall, which allowed students to get more help with homework from their teachers, while also allowing students to leave school early if they were within a certain academic standing.
"There were some pros and cons to that, but we wanted to allow some independence and flexibility during that time, while also keeping the kids in the classroom. So we just restructured how we use that time to allow students to have the ability to create, innovate and solve real world problems," Donnelly said. "We also allow kids to float in between Genius Hour classes if they are excited about a few different things, which gives them the option to take part in a variety of things rather than being locked into just one for the whole semester."
With the loss of their study hall, high school students were initially concerned about the loss of time that would normally allow them to get extra time working on homework.
"We have had a lot of discussions in our building about the idea of homework and knowing that we have kids that are involved in a ton of activities, kids that work and kids that are really committed to a lot of other things after school. And expecting kids to do hours of homework each night is not realistic," Donnelly said. "So we have tried to pair with knowing that once a week we are losing a little bit of that time to be able to work on things in school and having discussions about instructional practices about having homework in the building. That will be an ongoing conversation."
Having completed one semester, Donnelly is happy to report that both students and teachers have accepted the new program and enjoy their weekly break from classes.
"As we rolled into it kids have been very receptive and are saying that it is one of their favorite things that they do during the week," Donnelly said. "We have made some tweaks to Genius Hour for second semester based on feedback from students already. We actually have a student who pitched a computer programming class, and he is now running it during Genius Hour. That is the epitome of why we are doing these things: to really get that student engagement and get the students excited and eager about what they are doing in the building."
And it isn't only students who are enjoying the chance to pursue a passion and share it with others.
"From the get go, I wanted to make sure that this wasn't another task for teachers, but something that would allow them to pursue some passions that they have, and share those common interests with our kids," Donnelly said. "I think adults, too, like a break from the regular routine of the day. To see teachers engaged in these activities with kids has probably exceeded my original expectations."
According to Donnelly, the future of Genius Hour as it currently operates is up in the air, as the high school is working on making changes to the master schedule for next school year.
"The concept that Genius Hour is built on is one that we want to infuse into a new schedule," Donnelly said. "We want to allow them a voice and choice in what they are doing throughout the school day.
"A lot of schools in the area have been trying to implement something like this and I'm really proud that we were able to bring this to Somerset this year. We are just trying to find a different way to involve our kids with the activities we have here. That student engagement piece has been a huge driver as far as the 'why' behind this."