About Whitney Kaulbach

I teach High school and middle school students World History, AP World History, Reading Instruction, and Literacy Specialist.

Recently I mashed a world history unit on 19th century industry with student discussions on the history of change in education. A TED Talk illustrating Sir Ken Robinson’s reflections on transforming education away from standardized practice prompted student discussion and agreement on the need for time spent on creativity and artistic expression in all classes.

However, the conversation soon turned to a surprising conclusion about productivity and the value of learning. The consensus was that learning needs to be systematic and routine with a majority in agreement that tangible skills need to be taught, such as filing income tax. On this particular day, students derailed digital technologies, insisting that more time be made for conversation. I couldn’t help but notice the few who were checking text messages and gaming as they spoke. I held my comments in check as I listened to their brainstorming and concluded class with an invitation to write down what they would learn if given time.  This was the start of a small experiment with 20% time or Genius Hour. I would allow 20% of course time and course work for two weeks as invested self interest.  I would allow other time for scheduling voluntary presentation. While only a few have presented, I am finally able to draw conclusions about this practice.

Defined Academia– Only two of my 83 students from three separate classes wanted to learn something academic. The rest wanted to show off what they already knew and their choices were varied. Farm animals, participation in spring sports, or other hands-on classes took a lead.  One student gamer wanted to redesign a classroom game. A study of the universe and the 4th dimension were the academic pursuits. We started our independent explorations in the library perusing the print collections. The derailments against technologies made on the previous day no longer seemed to hold precedent now that choices for studies were made and several students expressed interest in using time to experiment with new presentation apps: Canva, Easely, Piktochart which are beginning to capture interest for infographic design.  I had students download the Common Core app to review how standards in education provide structure for learning or presentation. None of my students had ever read them over before so they went with my suggestion for focusing on persuasive reading/ writing. Leading question: Why would they want their peers to pay attention to a presentation? What reason would lead peers to develop a vested interested?

Assessment20Time provides templates for planning and evaluation. I melded this with my own rubric based on Universal Design For Learning and allowed students input for defining class time. Was it better to use 15 minutes a day for 20% time or to combine several segments into larger chunks of time? Or should it be the only assigned homework? Students pledged to  not disengage but later I realized that not all students would actually meet the requirement of presenting. I did not anticipate students studying, working and designing without completion. As I continue to conference with students I am discovering that many students enjoy learning, they can assess their own productivity honestly yet some really have no intention of presenting a finished product.  Thus the new question proposed by students is, ” why does learning always equate a polished end product? Why can’t learning just to learn be worth something?”

Variety– As I began this process I realized that this 20% Time is not groundbreaking or new.  In twenty years of teaching I have seen many examples of choice in learning.  While it isn’t systematic, best practices take place in more classrooms than not. At the elementary levels 20% time is often organized as a incentive for cumulative behavior management.  Students earn points for cooperative behaviors, for being organized, for completing assignments, for being thoughtful as an entire class instead of individually. Then they can vote on planning a choice activity for the whole class. Reader Theater, Drop Everything and Read (in pajamas), maker space, or hands on (butter making, sculpting), etc.

Stations– Some 20% time can be set up ahead of time as a routine station. My daughter loved her Rocket Math station where she tries to beat a number of solved equations in a set amount of time.  Or to move to a puzzle wall where an image accompanied by clues allows individuals as well as groups to work on problem solving. In my own practice I allow students to leave the classroom to record current events discussions.  Or to read and walk/talk on a campus loop with others. Wiggly kids will motivate to finish a writing task if the incentive for choice activity involves scavenger hunts, picture walks magnetic poetry boards or performance in front of a Green Screen.

Routine– Some students struggle with the complete freedom of expression and the scope of a generalized rubric for 20% Time. Those that clamored for structure or routine performance seem to be at ease with inventories. My colleagues design bingo boards, checklists or inventories based on expansive lists of content or skills or quantitative goals. Students combine the freedom to choose what they learn from a definitive expectation. They will complete the task of reading seven books or practicing _# phrases in a foreign language. They are incited by performance tasks in class designed collaborative games. The Latin teacher at our school offers time to work on Roman villa models in virtual worlds or on paper. The final product is a work in progress and it is exactly the learning that satisfies the most students.

There are only a few weeks left in the school year. Without the stress of a due date, students are still presenting their 20% Time in class, through social media or through selected smaller audiences while I move on with the final three units of class. I’m purposefully incorporating real world learning in each unit (minus the filing of income tax). I’m confident that students awareness of what is invested in education and their own contribution to its transformations will be a great way to end.



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