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School program gets boost from donors

Genius hour puts learning in the hands of Discover Passage Elementary students
From left

Students at Discovery Passage Elementary School get to take charge of some of their own learning in a new program called Genius Hour.

Supporters throughout the community have proven pretty bright, too.

Student requests to self-direct studies in music, engineering, chemistry, video production and other areas highlighted shortfalls in available equipment and supplies at the school.

So teacher Eben Van Renen placed a request for donations in online forums like Facebook and Craig's List, and was overwhelmed by the response.

Individual donors, along with the Campbell River Canadian Legion and Long & McQuade's Music in Courtenay, came through with musical instruments, tools and other supplies that have allowed the program for Grade 3, 4 and 5 students to prosper.

The music section in particular was a big beneficiary, with two guitars, two bass guitars, an electric keyboard, amps, effects pedals, cables, a tuner and more. Most of the big pieces came from individual donors, along with a pair of large cabinet speakers donated by the Legion.

"Long & McQuade filled in the gaps," said Van Renen. "But mainly it was the community. We even heard from one person in Fort Mac(Murray), who saw the ad and wanted to contribute."

Additional tools and equipment were donated for engineering, biology, chemistry and video production components of the program.

Genius Hour is based on Apple's 20 per cent program, in which employees of the computing giant spend 20 per cent of their work week on personal projects they're passionate about.

"Apple saw their productivity skyrocket," said Van Renen. "And some of the things their employees were working on turned out to be things they could market."

There is an existing school-based model for the Genius Hour program, but Van Renen did not use a template when he opened it up for his combined classroom.

"I started with a blank board," he said, sweeping his arm at the dry-erase board in front of the classroom. "As long as it's legal and doesn't blow up the school, they can choose what they want to do."

The students learn by adopting their chosen vocation and then researching and creating a project. They team up in small groups — including a rock band, engineers constructing crossbows or model airplanes, chemists mixing ingredients to create new substances, biologists researching worms and tadpoles, and a video production team that records it all for their in-house "TV" program, Discovery Hour.

"I wanted to be in acting or drama, but I was the only one. So I got put in this group," said Hailey Leck-Gilje, who quickly adopted the role of on-air interviewer in a group with camera operator Elise Perry and video editor Jared Romer. "I enjoy it as much as I enjoy acting."

All this activity doesn't take place in a single, chaotic classroom. The students are spread throughout the building, utilizing the computer, music and science rooms as well as the gymnasium, where the Discovery Hour "set" holds a prominent position on the stage.

Perhaps most interestingly, students will not be graded on their work in Genius Hour, which refers to the concept that anybody can reach genius-level knowledge of a subject by the time they've devoted 10,000 hours to it.

"I want to see them lost in their art," said Van Renen. "The moment I attach grades to this, it switches the focus to me, to my expectations."

The program has the full support of school principal Brenna Ewing, who noted that it dovetails with School District 72's strategic goal of self-directed study with focus on collaboration, critical thinking and technology.

And best of all, it works.

"The student engagement is excellent," she said. "When I go in and walk through the classrooms, they're fully engaged."

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