Genius Hour at the JCDSRI: When passions come alive


What would the world look like if we could spend a part of our work or school week on a passion project?


Inspired by technology companies such as Google and the Genius Hour education movement, Melynda Silva, a fourth-grade general studies teacher and librarian at the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island, wanted to find out what a minimum of 45 minutes each week spent on a passion project could do for her students.

Three years ago, Silva brought Genius Hour into her classroom, allowing her students to creatively explore their passions.

Silva starts the sessions with multiple brainstorming activities to help her students discover what really excites them. She said there are always a handful of students who know from day one exactly what they want their project to be, but three-quarters of the class needs guidance on where to begin. And a lot of projects morph into something else as the year goes on.  

Samuel Gidron, a fifth-grader formerly in Silva’s class, began last year wanting to make a Hoverboard. When he realized his goal was unrealistic, he moved on to a jet engine. But he soon recognized that this, too, was impossible with the time, resources and budget he had available. 

Although Samuel says these realizations were initially disappointing, he quickly moved on to a project that gave him real satisfaction: building a fish pond in his backyard. 

While he and his friends were digging up the yard, they found a bunch of old glass bottles. Samuel researched the bottles and found they were from the late 1800s! These included some medicine bottles, a bottle that once held poison, and his favorite, an old Heinz Ketchup bottle.

“Sometimes the students feel like the small ideas are too small to do, [but] there’s no right Genius Hour project,” Silva said. “The students just need someone to say, ‘Your passion is your passion to do what you want.’ Even if someone else thinks you are crazy or thinks it’s too easy.

“We’ve had students make PowerPoints about modern dairy farms, create videos on the history of animation, make ‘how to’ videos and cooking shows on YouTube, and write video games with help from students at Rochester Institute of Technology.”

Silva said the sky’s the limit as far as creativity goes.

“Sometimes students work on a service project, sometimes they are expressing themselves, sometimes they are building or creating things, and sometimes it’s just fun,” she said. “And it’s OK if their project has no real purpose.”

Genius Hour reflects the JCDSRI’s commitment to progressive, child-centered education, said Andrea Katzman, head of the Providence school.

“We recognize that in order for our students to authentically and meaningfully engage in the creative process, they need to demonstrate flexibility, open-mindedness and a willingness to embrace uncertainty and discomfort,” Katzman said.  “Genius Hour allows our students to practice these skills and mindsets in a safe and age-appropriate way.”

Projects have included a food and toy drive for the Rhode Island SPCA, turning a bicycle into a battery-powered bike that went over 30 miles an hour, and an attempt to make the world’s biggest chopsticks (at about 30 feet, they did become Rhode Island’s biggest chopsticks). The students build their projects with help from classmates, family, friends and mentors, and they learn how to fund their project as well.

“I check in once a week. We set goals, keep a timeline, I connect them to mentors and I work with them to set a realistic budget,” Silva said. “Fourth-graders think that every budget is realistic. The number one rule is: Ms. Silva is not funding your Genius Hour project.”

Another student whose passion project morphed into something extremely satisfying is Ella Sinel, who’s now a fifth-grader. Ella started making a video travel show, but she just couldn’t “dig into it,” she said. With the encouragement of Silva, she kept searching for her passion. Ella then met a fashion-designer friend of her mom’s, and an idea was planted: she wanted to connect with the founder and CEO of StyleWeek Northeast, Rosanna Ortiz.

Ella was persistent in contacting Ortiz to get some feedback about her clothing sketches.

“It was funny because this little girl was emailing every email address for me she could find. At first, I thought it was a joke,” Ortiz told The Providence Journal.

Then Ella, supervised by the JCDSRI staff, held a conference call in the school lobby with Ortiz, and convinced her to not only let her into StyleWeek, but to open up the event to other youngsters as well.

“She sounded like such an adult,” Silva said. “We were so proud.”

To open StyleWeek, in September, four junior designers presented mini-collections at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, in Providence, in what they called the SEEDlings Student Design Challenge, a special version of StyleWeek’s long-running SEED event. The show featured garments made by Ella and other elementary school pupils, with some help from adult mentors.

Ella named her clothing line “Candy,” and watched in awe as professional models walked on the runway in clothes she had designed and helped sew. This outcome was even more satisfying when she won first place, with a $1,000 cash prize, which she says she will put in her college fund. 

“It was a dream come true!” Ella exclaimed. 

Silva said she loves watching her students find their passion.

“My favorite part is right before the students present in May, when I step back to think about where everyone started and where they are at the end of their project,” she said. “It’s amazing what they think of. Even if it seems impossible to me, because I’m an adult and I see the parameters, they usually still figure out a way to make it work.”

ADINA DAVIES is the advancement associate at the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island.