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By Vicky Dorvee

Wondering becomes brilliant with NES’s first grade Genius Hour


Photo by Vicky Dorvee Dropping off NES student donations at OUR Center, from left to right: Rachel Radliff, Cheri Radliff, Duncan Radliff, Layna Longseth, Pat Longseth, Asher Radliff, Maddox Longseth, Rachel Longseth, Karyssa Radliff, Kelly Bernhardt, and OUR Center staff member, Steve McLaughlin.

It turns out, if you give a first-grader the opportunity to deep dive into their inquisitive minds, a torrent of inspiration and ingenuity will be the probable outcome. Teacher Kelly Bernhardt dared each of her 24 students at Niwot Elementary (NES) to do just that through a process called the Genius Hour.

Originally used by inventive companies, the Genius Hour gives employees freedom to wander through their own thoughts while on the job. After selecting what lights them up the most from their list of wonderments, they dig in to the topic to make discoveries.

Search engine company Google has become the quintessential illustration of how this concept works. Twenty percent of workers’ on-the-job time may be devoted to Genius Hour pursuits. Gmail, and perhaps as much as half of the company’s bright ideas, are said to have taken root while employees explored their “passion projects.”

Bernhardt applied this same principle to the youngsters in her schoolroom and it produced a group of highly engaged and productive whiz kids.

“We brainstormed our strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. This helped students find something they wanted to learn more about,” Bernhardt said. “We worked hard to develop questions for inquiry that were ‘genius’ questions…not something that could simply be googled.”

The results of the process were projects exploring such areas as making a battery that would last forever, designing a safer football helmet, asking how dirty water can be converted to potable water, and figuring out how to find the best maple tree for syrup.

Students Layna Longseth and Asher Radliff worked together to learn more about homelessness in our community and reached out to OUR Center, a non-profit organization in Longmont, to see how they could make a difference.

The pair then went to each first through third-grade classroom to give a presentation about homelessness. “We have been researching homelessness in Longmont and have asked ‘What can we do to help?’ We learned that one thing we can do is to collect some of the most needed items and share them with those in need.” In two weeks they collected a nice volume of toothpaste, toothbrushes, clothing, and socks to take to OUR Center.

“I gave cake to homeless people before,” Radliff said when asked why he was interested in helping the homeless. He said for his last birthday, he brought a cake to share with homeless people who were sheltering at his family’s church, The Journey.

After dropping off the items they collected, Bernhardt along with Radliff and Longseth and their families, toured the OUR Center. Staff member Steve McLaughlin answered questions such as

how many people come to the center each day for meals and provisions, and how many are homeless.

McLaughlin said the center helps 250 to 300 clients each day, and 20 percent of them are without homes. He said most clients have homes and jobs, but because of various circumstances they’re still unable to obtain the food, clothing and toiletries, so OUR Center fills the gaps.

Longseth said, “I just wanted to see what it was like to help the homeless because it’s the right thing to do. I hope homeless people will come here and take what we dropped off.”

Other creative Genius Hour projects in Bernhardt’s class included a student who composed music which a friend then taught her to play on the violin. Another student learned to design a piece of clothing, select the fabric, and sew a dress for the first time. After conducting research on their topics, students created posters, websites, and 3D models to explain what they had discovered.

Bernhardt said, “Students overwhelming loved Genius Hour. They would literally groan when it was over each week, and ask every day when they would be doing it again. They were so proud. It was a rich and rewarding experience.”

OUR Center is a non-profit organization helping members of the community with their basic needs and assisting them to reach self-sufficiency. To find out more, visit www.OURCenter.org.


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