Genius Corner: Catching High-Flyers, Motivating All Learners, and Providing Equal Access

Connecting Ideas

I first heard about this concept at the 2016 Pete & C in Hershey, PA (Pennsylvania Educational Technology Expo & Conference) as Genius Time. Darlene Balaguer-Piernock from Methacton School District presented on her use of genius time in a presentation called Genius Time: Opening the Door to Technology. Her third grade students were introduced to various project concepts, with more of a Maker-Space potential. She discussed her vision from both long-term and short-term goal perspectives, bringing in mini-lessons for the students, providing a variety of interest-based media with technology, but also crafts such as water colors and crocheting, and her focus developed along the lines of a PBL approach. Her students followed their interests and grouped themselves where they worked through a long-term project start to finish, using their genius time to imagine, cooperate, and create together.

While this dynamic was successful for Darlene, and she was very excited to share, I knew I would need to take her ideas and morph them to fit my classroom and my scheduling needs. While also self-contained and teaching third grade, I knew it would be impossible to dedicate a structured “Genius Time,” nor would it necessarily be possible to maintain groups of students together as so many rotated in and out for various services. I also have a soft side for building a love for fluid learning. I strongly believe that being locked into long-term goals can be, at times, counter productive, and it would be my vision to give students the power to flex in and out of genius activities as their various interests sparked.

For me, the gears started turning right away. I began thinking of my current students and what their interests were. I also started to think of ways I could use this to try to seal up some of the gaps I felt in providing extended learning opportunities to high-flying learners during my afternoon reading groups where I knew their independence craved something new and exciting to hone in on. Could this also provide incentive for some of my reluctant learners a reprieve from the norm where they can explore learning from a more unique perspective and once again reignite a passion for inquiry? My feeling was YES! Only this was day one of the conference, and I had two more days before I could even get back to my classroom…


Even though I started building center-style activities for students to explore right way, I knew implementation would be murky. I was very unsure how I wanted it to function, especially since it was nearing March at this point, which means nearing testing season, and all the fun that comes with that! I had morning meetings with my students, so I started there. I also started with activities we already had established routines for, which made it a much easier transition.

We had been pen-pals with a deployed Navy team on the USS Stennis, which was out in the Pacific at the time. The kids were excited every time they heard back from their sailor, so the intrinsic motivation was already there! They couldn’t wait to write their response! All I had to do was create my first tag on the Genius Corner pocket chart named Global Communications, discuss the rules of engagement during morning meeting, and BAM! While I met with reading groups, several students quietly cycled in, placing their name card into the Global Communications slot, pulled out their last print out letter from the pen-pal, opened up a new Google Doc, and began typing away in the Genius Corner.

In the following weeks, we had been studying plants in science, but primary teachers know how hard it is to stay consistent with time for Science and Social Studies… I can always teach the core topics, but I wanted a way for those interested in going in more depth, those asking tons of questions beyond the scope of what we needed to know in third grade, got a chance to do just that. I created a Science card for my pocket chart next. This could morph into anything I needed, or they wanted it to be, over time. It took me some time to review upper grade content, but I created a self-led packet that tied into Youtube videos, introduced them to more advanced vocabulary, and directions on planting and caring for your own monster sunflower, and turned into a journal. A direction card was made, I used shoe-box sized clear bins with lids from the DollarTree for materials and packets, taped the directions to the lid, and discussed rules of engagement over a new morning meeting. By the end of the year, five kids took home sunflower plants that were about 3 feet tall they had been journalling about, which means the project was brought to a completion at that time (and this is in addition to all their daily tasks, and other genius corner activities they decided to dabble in as well).

IMG_3211        bins

The last corner activity I implemented in year one was for social studies. Again, I stayed very simple. I knew fourth grade social studies became a challenge for some, mostly because the accountability changed and the content stepped it up as they studied the states and regions. My students LOVED music that year, so this activity card simply had a couple of YouTube videos for them to tune into as often as possible. I had printed lyrics for home practice, as well as the links on our class page. They could remain individual or team up, but culmination had to come in the form of a presentation for a song of choice: Tour the States or 50 States that Rhyme.  Students in that last weeks of school had their choice to perform live or to create their own mini videos using my iPad, which could be uploaded as a private link to our district YouTube account. Everyone fearlessly went live! One student (very athletic), showed off his abilities by completing push ups while reciting the 50 states that Rhyme; one (who knew the rap lyrics were too much for himself), brought in his own bongo drums for beat, recruited some lead talent, and produced a musical masterpiece that went off without a hitch; two soloists blew our socks off at different times – one just incredibly shy, very low average across the board, and reluctant to get involved in nearly any spotlight activities, including oral reading in small group, performed 50 States that Rhyme in a gorgeous singing voice that none of us knew she had; and the other, significantly MR and only included for science and social studies block, was the first to master by memory and perform the 50 States that Rhyme to a roaring audience.

Fast-forward to this year and I had more time to prepare and adjust, which translated into more successes! Here are the major categories I landed on for my pocket chart:


Activity Card Samples (easily created and adjusted from a Word template):

Each one relates to work in our curricular day, but has the potential to take significant twists. While I based activity cards at the beginning of the year on curriculum ties and generalized interest for the age-level, some activities changed through the year based on curiosities expressed by students. For instance, the language center had Spanish cards and Youtube videos that hit on Spanish basics because it was my presumption that Spanish would be the primary interest for our geographic region, and would further develop following one of our anthology stories. However it remained hardly touched, until I had a student move-in who was previously homeschooled and introduced me to DuoLingo. With a little more prep work, a DuoLingo connection was made for FREE and my interested students began journalling about their progress as they learned Portuguese, French, and Italian! Wow, was I naive!

Math became super easy to find inspiration for all around! Check out this Snapple lid. I left that in an activity bin for a couple of weeks with one of our content posters conveniently located and the results were just so cool!


This year, I have been super excited to introduce my students to Jamie Sears’ (Not So Wimpy Teacher) Math Menu Enrichment Projects from the TeacherPayTeacher store. The element of choice partners with creativity as students work through challenging extensions beyond their routine lessons.

Interest-Based and Student Choice

For this to work, I knew interest-based was key. Which is why after year one, I knew year two had to start off with a lot more choice. I also knew that I would need to be flexible with adding new ideas and listening to my students for any given year. I added an inquiry box by my Genius corner. Nothing elaborate – literally a quickly spray bombed dollar box with question marks all over it. If students felt they had a question or a recommendation for our Genius Corner, they simply needed to add a comment in the box, which could be discussed individually if they left their name on it or in our morning meeting if left anonymous.

For some of my kiddos looking for short-term choices (closer to a standard center), I still wanted something a little different. It had to be independent, differentiated, and able to be considerate of different interests. Basically, I have become a collector of all things fun! Check out 5-Below for STEM kits and shop Amazon deals for STEM ideas. I have been able to get some great kits involving the solar system, circuitry, robotics, strategy games, k’nex, Create-o-Flakes, coding, and more!

I had also started to strategically save parts of my supply funds for ETA VersaTiles. I formerly worked for a Sylvan Learning Center, and we used VersaTiles with great success to promote independent practice at a table while we worked guided with another student. Kids loved them, and they could be easily used for checks for understanding, assessments, practice, or explorations.  They are self-checking with no writing involved (hugely motivational for some), and can get your students critically thinking outside of your instructional lessons so quickly! My high-flying math students loved to periodically dabble in the 4th grade-level math VersaTiles. My science gurus loved having science topics outside of the scope of what we learned in the classroom. Each activity is only 12 questions, so they generally do not take too long, and they come with teacher tools, including tracking sheets the students fill out so you can see which activities they have attempted. You can buy small kits relatively cheap, and I certainly learned to watch for clearance items.

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Equal Access

The best part about not locking into a specific Genius TIME, is that students began asking to use all kinds of bits of time during our day to visit the Genius Corner and the answer could almost always be YES. Everything from morning breakfast to indoor recess to early finishers during routine content area tasks could be used. This also created more equal access for students who are not always around during reading group time, which is the best segment of time I could dedicate from a true scheduling perspective.

Another great way this has been able to be kept equal access has been through class award system with Mystery Motivators, which we learned about in a recent in-service. In a class survey, Genius Corner time won out over extra recess time as the most craved motivator. Talk about a love for learning!

Fluid Opportunities

Opportunity. That is what I envisioned. That is what I was striving to create. We spend hours a day teaching and learning prescribed material and content. I wanted my students to be given the opportunity to explore new topics and to make new connections. If one does not strike them the way they thought, then I wanted them to be able to change their mind. They could review the activity card and gain understanding of all its phases and requirements. They could spend a day shadowing another student working on that corner, simply observing and asking questions. Metacognition is the awareness of ones own thought process, and boy were my kiddos ever aware!

Through our meetings, they would gain general understanding for length of project, etc. Many students would show very quick and eager willingness to start. Some would noticeably shy off certain “work-heavy” tasks, and more would join in as they saw the eagerness and joy spread among groups of workers or witnessed what the end results culminated in. Throughout an entire school year, I never once felt I had to interject to spark further curiosity. I found that students sought the opportunities that most interested them and did an amazing job even balancing between multiple, afraid they would miss out on certain activities if the Genius Corner got shaken up.

Intrinsic Motivation

One thing I have always been critical about the teaching and learning in my classroom is that opportunity does not come free, it must be earned. Through what means do you get your students pumped to learn new content? What kind of leads do you use? Are you prepared to sell it, even when you are not crazy about the topic yourself? I believe all these are critical to building the right kind of intrinsic motivators in your classroom. Because some teachers have this as a strength, and others as a weakness, I also believe that some kids will naturally falter with this rising and lowering of this tide. It is something living and breathing they experience and feel and we, as facilitators and masters of our craft, have to help them on their journey. Yes, a big part of intrinsic motivation comes from within. That’s what defines it after all, but even the most intrinsically motivated will take an out if they are taught or see that it is OK to do, especially if the environment is not conditioned right.

Halt SignHow do my students earn their opportunities to the Genius Corner? Well, it is simple. We have a pact. “No one shall enter who has not had thy work completed with care and had it checked with a peer!” With ownership put on them self to complete their independent practice, and to complete it well enough to pass the inspection of a peer, it is a struggle I rarely need to contend with. If the independent practice is a more difficult comprehension piece that I suspect will need more review, I carefully select “masters” in the room to wear capes as my designated checkers and coaches for the particular assignment. This keeps me free for working in my guided reading groups undisturbed and keeps skill-focus on the forefront when needed. My students have an understanding that the Genius Corner, while a great privilege, it is one that may not be visited every day,  or even every week, but as we work hard together, we keep that right and privilege alive for every moment we can. They want to keep this right and work hard to maintain it – that is the bottom line.

Furthermore, I also spend a lot of time connecting interest-based activities for my students. This does get difficult when they all want to jump on the K’Nex bandwagon and I only have two kits borrowed from the sixth grade science/STEM teacher. This is also a longer-term 3-phase project that has taken up to a couple of months for some to complete. I have found out from one such student in limbo that she had a passion for rocks, so I dug through the old storage closet and put together a rock exploration for her while she waited for the engineering corner to become available. She was locked in on working with K’Nex so nothing else already existing would do. One simple concession to keep her motivation high was easy.

Student Paced and Student Run

One restriction I never wished to instill in the Genius Corner was a deadline. First off, I never wanted any product to be rushed to the finish. I know what kind of outcome that automatically results in. Secondly, I go back to the concept of building fluid opportunity. How would I maintain this opportunity if deadlines stood in the way? Last associates with the student ownership piece. Student pacing has a direct tie to their own drive and motivation. I wanted them to hone in and drive this cart. 

At first, students would frequently come to me for reassurance with questions about moving their tag in and out of the pocket chart. Was it OK to start again in another Corner? Was it really OK to watch a friend for a day? Was it OK to keep my name in this one, but work in this one for today? Was it OK, was it OK, was it OK? And every time, I would quietly ask them about our meeting discussion, they would repeat it back to me, and off they would go with a smile on their face. It truly took longer for me to settle into Guided Reading routines for the year than it did for them to fall into Genius Corner routines. 

Some activities worked out by happenstance through the year – go with the flow and take advantage! This past year, we pen-paled with a class in Russia. A 12-year-old student in Russia put together a script in a Word document as an assignment for her class, which taught some basic phrases and how to say them in English and was sent to me by the Russian teacher. All I did is clip her work to the Global Communications board and it quickly sparked curiosity. At the time, PSSAs were looming and I had no creativity to offer. Two girls grabbed it, worked on something for a couple weeks, asked to borrow my iPad periodically, asked if they could involve another student to be a “Director” and that was about all I was privy to. The final result was a short iMovie with two girls meeting in the hallway, introducing themselves to one another using all the basic Russian phrases. It was flawless! I have had a guest community member come in in year’s past to help teach similar phrases, and it is difficult with modeling. These girls worked at it and did it on their own. When I asked more, they said they used Google Translate and listened to a couple of words, but mostly they just kept practicing together. Following their video success, they asked me with eagerness to send their link back to Russia to show off what they learned, and they spent about a week offering and giving lessons to several other classmates interested in learning some key phrases.

What About Accountability?

Well, here we go. No, I did not grade a thing. I gave the kids feedback, and more importantly I gave them recognition. These two things are way more powerful than putting a grade on a paper. By the way, this might come as a surprise, but not a single nine-year-old asked, “Mrs. Merrell, what was my grade on that?”

For recognition, the kids LOVED when I gave them a plug on ClassDojo. After groups, I would frequently take a minute or two and quietly walk around the room, snap a couple pictures, ask them what they were working on and post to Dojo for their parents to see. When a student completed an Hour of Code, I would have them save and share the certificate file with me so I could upload it to Dojo that day. Dojo points were earned for each Genius Corner activity completed and photo documented (which students could do on their own with their Chromebooks).

I did keep a simple chart so I knew who was working toward which goals. It was more for my own curiosity than for accountability though. Could it have been used for accountability if needed? Sure, I suppose, but it wasn’t needed. About once a month, I would have students reach into their GC folder and pull out any work-in-progress pieces to share in form of a gallery walk. Hour of Code certificates could be brought up on their Google Drive, and other photos could be displayed on the Dojo page. This allowed for the class to see as a whole who was working or dabbling on what, how far they have gotten, and how much they have accomplished. For some, it was a motivator in itself, igniting a bit of friendly competition amongst friends. For some, it was a motivator to see outcomes toward a goal they had not yet thought of for them self. What I found is that my students started creating their own accountability standards and this is more powerful than anything I could ever lay out for them.



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