Photo: 190411-news-geniushour

Fifth-grade teacher Emily Burns at Barka Elementary School first saw the idea for the Genius Hour program online, and brought the idea to administrators at the start of the school year.

DERRY — At the start of the school year, Ernest P. Barka Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Emily Burns knocked on her principal’s door with an idea. That idea, called Genius Hour, was to set aside one hour each Friday for her students to work on special individualized projects of their choosing.

Principal Dan LaFleur gave the green light, and the program was adopted not just by Burns’ class of roughly 15 students, but all 85 students in that grade school-wide, and at some other schools in the district, such as Derry Village Elementary School and Grinnell Elementary School.

Burns said the students loved it.

“It’s a nice little brain break,” she said.

Burns said this form of learning was fun and engaging for the students, because it had to do with things that interested them. She said she first saw the idea for Genius Hour on Pinterest, and learned that it started as a Google employee program, where employees get to use 20 percent of their work time on personal research projects.

Burns presented her class with a video of what other kids in other parts of the country have done to get them thinking about possible ideas. Some students knew immediately what they wanted to do, others took up to three weeks to settle on a project.

The projects ranged from traditional science projects like constructing a model volcano or researching the anatomy of the heart to creative projects like making songs using audio editing software or filming a documentary about Barka’s fifth-grade teachers.

“One kid wrote a novel,” Burns said. “They had to demonstrate their learning through some kind of presentation.”

The program lasted from September through December. Not every student could participate because the hour was shared by some remedial “intervention” time.

They took a break in the spring because of a busy testing schedule, but Burns said she plans to bring it back next year, hopefully with more than one project period in the school year.

Assistant Superintendent Austin Garofalo said an increased availability in technology ought to help streamline the projects, as they begin to offer one-to-one Chromebooks to fifth graders next year. And they recently completed an infrastructure upgrade to improve internet connectivity.

“Everybody will have more access to the computers, which will be sweet,” Garofalo said.

The Genius Hour falls under a larger push in the district to develop and introduce competency-based learning programs, which emphasize student-centered learning at their own pace.

“It’s increasing the personalization and getting much better buy-in from the kids,” Garofalo said.

LaFleur said that’s a key ingredient in education, that’s often missing from the traditional schooling model.

“That’s what you want. You want to create that spark in education,” LaFleur said.

Burns said the Genius Hour was mostly unstructured, and she would help facilitate their problem solving process as needed.

“I check in with them while they’re working, but there’s very little guidance that I give them,” Burns said.

Garofalo said 16 fifth-grade teachers in the district are part of a competency-based education leadership team that have been learning from consultant Rose Colby since last school year. This is the first school year that pilot programs have been introduced into the classrooms.

In the last six or seven weeks of the school year, schools will be introducing a grade-spanning vocabulary program called Words Their Way. That will be a precursor to future plans to merge grade levels for things such as reading and math, Garofalo said. The district will be fully immersed in competency in the next seven years, he predicts.

The idea is to place students in levels based on their competency — like sports teams organized by varsity and junior varsity — so they can learn at their own pace and not feel discouraged by being behind their peers.