Earlier this year, The Common Application, used by more than 800 colleges and universities, announced their seven 2019-20 essay prompts. Number six on the list is an essay question introduced last year: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
The prompt, which invites students to share a passion project or experience where they directed their own learning, is not popular with high school seniors thus far. According to The Common Application, the top three prompts in 2018-19 were:
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice.
- Discuss an accomplishment or event that sparked personal growth or a deeper understanding of yourself or others.
- Recount a time when you faced a challenge or setback, how did it affect you and what did you learn from the experience?
Willow Head of School Francisco Ayala is not surprised by these results. “Students’ lives are so structured in and out of school. Many just haven’t had the time or freedom to explore a passion on a deep and meaningful level. Immersing yourself in an interest or idea and taking it as far as you can go is really important. It teaches kids how to take ownership of their learning, a skill that they will use their entire lives.”
That’s why Student-Led Genius Hour is an essential part of the Willow curriculum. Practiced by companies like Google, at Willow, the program gives Grade 3, 4, and 5 students dedicated time to explore a passion or interest and develop a project that demonstrates their understanding and mastery of the topic. Willow third grader Grant, for instance, is fascinated by roller coasters. Genius Hour gave him the opportunity to research the history of roller coasters, figure out how a roller coaster operates, and build his own model with the help of his classmates. The students became acquainted with principles of physics, such as gravity and friction, and problem solved building issues as a team.
Fifth graders Lola and Maya decided to take their love of science and animals to the next level during their Genius Hour class period. They worked with science teacher and afterschool program coordinator Ms. M to create a proposal for an afterschool enrichment class called “Kids and Creatures.” Lola and Maya met with Head of School Francisco Ayala to present the idea, which was approved as part of Willow’s upcoming spring enrichment sessions. Maya and Lola will lead the class with Ms. M, teaching fellow students in Grades K-2 about the animals outside of their classroom window through fun games, science experiments, and expeditions around campus.
“We wanted to inspire other kids to do more things like this,” Lola said. “It’s not just that teachers can do it. Kids can too.”
What did Maya and Lola learn for this Genius Hour project? “We learned that it’s hard work to put together an after school program, and your first idea might not be your last idea,” said Maya. “We definitely learned about negotiation,” Lola added, describing the many meetings the students had with Willow’s Head of School and enrichment coordinator.
Fifth graders and baking enthusiasts Charli and Mia used their Genius Hour time to learn how to bake tiny cakes. The project was inspired by the principle of Temperance, one of 10 virtues embraced by the entire Willow community this year. The students discovered that it’s easier to consume less if the sweet treat is smaller. When they presented to the class, their classmates and teacher encouraged them to continue their experiments, perhaps by conducting taste-tests with various sugar replacements.
Other Genius Hour projects have included exploring the construct of the Rube Goldberg Machine, learning about which watches work best in space, and leading a school-wide Kindness Rocks painting event and fundraiser.
“Our students explore a great variety of topics,” said Willow fifth grade teacher Denise Touhey. “The topic can be nearly anything, because Genius Hour facilitates a culture of learning that students will carry with them long after they leave Willow. It’s a vehicle to help them discover passions, while teaching them how to research, problem solve, present their learning to others, and make an impact on the world.”
“I think that’s one of the reasons why Willow students stand out when they are applying to high school and college,” added Francisco. “Willow’s focus on experiential, student-directed learning like Genius Hour harnesses kids’ curiosity and motivation and channels it into an intrinsic desire to learn, achieve, and effect change. When the time comes to tackle the Common App essay, Willow graduates won’t shy away from the question about engaging in a topic where they lose all track of time. They’ll embrace it.”
Want to see Genius Hour in action? Request a personal tour of Willow with Director of Admissions Lisa VanderVeen.