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Kids pursue passions during genius hour at Centennial Arts Academy
Fifth-graders Haylee Truong, left, and McKenna Filson discuss a project.

For an hour a day at Centennial Arts Academy, a group of fifth-graders get to take a break from the usual structure to learn about anything they want to.

The students are part of teacher Dallas Thompson’s genius hour, where kids get to pursue a “passion project” that really interests them — no tests or curriculum, just the joy of learning.

William Scott, 10, used genius hour to build a model roller coaster, learning about engineering and math in the process.

“In the beginning of the class, you were supposed to say what you would do if you had one day off of school, and I said go to Six Flags,” William said. “So (Mrs. Thompson) said that should be my project.”

Miranda Strickland, 10, used genius hour to research self-defense techniques, something she became interested in because she loves karate. Savannah Tate, also 10, used her interest in gymnastics as a starting point for a research project on gymnastics safety. Both girls said they chose projects that would help them share their interests with others.

“I did self-defense and karate in case kids or someone is in an emergency, they would know how to get out of it,” Miranda said.

“I love doing gymnastics, and I tried to teach my sister to do some because she wanted to, but she was scared to,” said Savannah.

Miranda already has plans to share another of her interests in her next project.

“I’m going to make a diorama of cats and get people to like cats,” she said.

The projects are as varied as the kids themselves.

Eleven-year-old Max Kiker tested whether Coca-Cola and Mentos would make a bigger explosion when frozen, while bookworm Anslee Brewer, 10, researched the benefits of reading and built her own bookshelf.

“It’s good because you get to do what you love to do,” Anslee said. “It’s a privilege to be in here.”

While kids in genius hour are free to choose their own projects and methods of carrying them out, the class is not without structure. Just as in any class, everything is steered toward learning. The difference is that, in genius hour, students have a say in what they learn.

At the end of each unit, students give presentations on their projects, and both the presentations and the research are graded.

The research is graded by Thompson for use of proper sources, citation and fifth-grade writing standards, but the grading of the presentations is a little more unconventional.

“The students create the rubric for grading themselves as a whole class, and they are graded based on that rubric. I grade the students, and they all grade each other as well,” Thompson said.

The students also give each other a “glow” for things that were done well in the presentations and a “grow” for things that could be improved.

“This helps them work on communication and presentation skills,” Thompson said.

Students also have assignments based on their projects, including sharing what they’ve learned on a blog.

Jacob Nguyen, 11, said it’s one of the best things about the class.

“You get to share with the world,” he said, “and use your imagination.”

Kids also participate in activities outside their personal projects. Tuesday, they spent the day making pompom cannons and learning about the physics behind them.

Often, they watch Kid President videos.

“You learn how to change the world and how to make the world a better place,” said Savannah, ”and how to not be boring and do something.”

Thompson said the class is fun for her, too.

“I like that they’re my guide,” she said. “In regular classes you have a pacing guide and you have your curriculum guide, but these kids are exposed to high-level thinking skills, and they make the plan for me.”

Right now, only some students are selected for genius hour. Thompson said she works with other fifth-grade teachers to identify students who are ready for a challenge.

“These kids show consistent growth in the classroom and consistent effort in the classroom,” she said.

Thompson’s hope is to eventually have genius hour for everyone.

“They all need to be exposed to these skills. They all need to be exposed to that type of environment.”

The idea for genius hour began in the tech industry, where companies like Google allowed their employees to use a percentage of their time pursuing any project they liked, and has since been picked up by classrooms around the country.

The idea is the same in the classroom as in a corporate office: When curious minds have the opportunity to explore an idea, they can discover things they may not have in a more structured setting.

For companies like Google, those discoveries lead to the development of new, innovative products. For teachers, they lead to the development of an enthusiasm for learning and creating.

Kids said they learned math, engineering, science and how to perform research, but they’re learning some life lessons as well.

“When you grow up, you’re going to have to learn to do things on your own sometimes,” said 11-year-old Merritt Gilmer.

William, whose model roller-coaster project included details like grass and model cars, said the most important thing he’s learned is, “Never give up on something you love.”

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