Genius Hour in #fsl #fslchat #20time

I found this post difficult to write and went back through it several times to try and gather my thoughts.  It is hard to summarize what we did and my personal reflections without blabbing on and on and on.  Here is the gist, if you have any questions or advice/solutions, please leave them in the comments below.


I decided I wanted to attempt Genius Hour or #20time in my core French classroom after attending the GAFE summit in Kitchener-Waterloo this past April and having had the opportunity to see Kevin Brookhouser speak about how he implemented the 20 Time project with his students.  I really like the idea of giving students the opportunity to explore their own interests/passions, however struggled (and still do) with how we can accomplish this in the second language classroom.


Like I have done with previous projects, I threw the idea out to my students to see what they thought and we brainstormed together.  We discussed as a class the importance of either researching a topic of interest to them and finding Francophone cultural ties or pursuing a passion/project of their own, while blogging and reporting on it in French.  Whichever they chose to pursue, had to have a final product that could be shared in the end.

Here were four questions we generated together that helped guide the project:

  1.  What is of interest to you?
    2.  How will you share the information you find out for your project?
    3.  How will you publish your findings?
    4. Who will your audience be?


Next, students started generating ideas.  Here is a website that one of my students found that helped some of my students narrow down a topic if they didn’t know where to start.  Creative Projects of Interest Area


What We Did

First, I had my students create a document in Google Drive that they shared with me.  We used this document to develop their ideas.  Because it was the first time I had done a project like this with my second language students, I, myself, really wasn’t sure what to expect.  Students came with many different ideas and I felt like my job was to continuously provide reflective questions along the way that could be used to guide them to connect it properly to the language and/or culture.  I also tried to hold students accountable for the work they were doing.  In their Google document, they were to report at the end of each week about what they accomplished and what their plan of action for the following week was.











I gave students approximately 6-7 weeks to work on the project.  (I only see them for 160 minutes per week and at this time of the year with field trips and other school events; it often ended up being less time than this).


At the end, their projects were submitted to me via Google Classroom.  Students were able to finish the projects, however we ran out of time with respect to presenting their findings and experiences to their classmates.


What I Noticed


The whole point of this project was to allow students to explore the French language or culture in a way that related to their personal interests.  In doing so, the idea was that they would be truly engaged in the research or language learning.  I did notice however, that some students struggled with the lack of structure.  Students had difficulty truly identifying topics they were interested in researching and then making the necessary connections to French culture.  (For example, they could tell me that they liked to dance, but maybe couldn’t make the connection to exploring traditional French dances in French-speaking African countries, or researching current popular French musicians in Quebec or Europe).  I also found it difficult to manage and keep up with each students’ project planning and reflection.  With every student doing a different project, I really had to go into each students’ documents to ask questions to get them thinking.  I was also having to do side research for each project so I was better informed about what questions to ask (no, I don’t have all of the answers or know even close to everything there is to know about Francophone culture)


To solve this, I will try to provide a ‘project list’.  This would consist of a broad range of topics/ideas that students could research that relate to grade appropriate expectations for each class.  (For example, many students were interested in food, so one of the possible choices that I might give a grade 8 class is to ‘create a French cook book highlighting 4 traditional Francophone European recipes’.  Or maybe they could teach their classmates how to cook in French by choosing a traditional recipe, and making it with their class by going through the steps in French.  Another possible idea for grade 8s interested in sports would be to research the different hockey/soccer/basketball/etc leagues or teams one could play for in French speaking countries in Europe and create a book or movie to teach others about what they learned.) I will ask students to choose from the list, however will encourage them to also think closely about the topics that are really of interest to them.  If they don’t see something from the list that they want to pursue, I will then have them submit a ‘proposal’ that outlines their own ideas based on a topic they truly are passionate about.  My hopes are that this will provide the connection to Francophone culture and language for those in my classes that need it and that it will accommodate those who maybe have their own ideas they would like to explore by freeing up more time for me to help them develop it.


Another thing I noticed was that some students wanted a more concrete list of exactly what was expected of them or needed more structure to help better manage their time in class.


For this problem, I think as a class we need to generate a timeline at the beginning of the project.  This will help with goal setting and to ensure that the projects are meeting different benchmarks along the journey.  I am not entirely sure of the best way to gather these benchmarks from the students, but it will be something we will explore next year.  (Please add ideas in the comments if you have any solutions to this).   For the students who can handle the freedom, I might ask them to generate their own timeline or set their own goals for over the course of the project that highlight what they will accomplish and at what points.  


I had some students who wanted to continue projects they were building at home and blog about their experiences in French.  How do you do this with a second language, when their vocabulary isn’t extensive enough to be able to fluently express themselves on the topic, nor do they have the necessary skills to determine what words and expressions are necessary in order to accurately build their own vocabulary lists.

I determined that this is a skill that would need to be taught and modeled extensively, if I am going to expect it of my students. I guess I just assumed that they would be able to identify the different words and expressions they needed.  For example, if we were going to talk about movies, there are certain words and expressions that relate directly to this topic.  I.e. I saw.., I have never seen, actor, actress, the part when, the scene, the character, etc.  If I need the word, I will look it up when I come to it.  This is not an innate skill.  I always encourage my students to keep things simple when expressing themselves in French and reword what they want to say in a way that they use the words and expressions they already know.  Then, when they come to a word they need but don’t know (and that is essential to being able to express themselves clearly), they look up how to say this word in the target language.  They are then learning new words and expressions that relate to their topic, but are not looking up EVERY SINGLE word in a sentence in order to express themselves.  It was evident after this project that this is a skill that we need to continue to refine in class and I need to continue to provide more opportunity for practice.


Lastly, as another next step, I would like to link these projects in the future to purpose based learning.  I would like to find a way to make the project authentic and to solve a real world problem.  One idea that we had this year was to have students run a book drive (or toonie drive) to raise books/money for schools in Rwanda.  Again, this is a work in progress and we would have to find ideas for other purposeful-projects, but one step at a time.  Just another idea that I am working on figuring out how to fit it into my Core French classroom.


What do you think?

So what do you think?  Are the challenges I have met due to the fact that we are attempting it in a second language classroom?  Is it an issue due to the time constraints of my class?  Or do you find this happens in a first language classroom that offers ‘genius hour’ or ’20 time’ as well?  How do you overcome these challenges to help students be successful?



Here are some examples of finished products.

A Zelda Game made on Scratch to work on directions in French. Click here (will not work on an iPad)

Zelda Game  Also read here relating to the game:

Coding French Games Using Geometry



A game coded by a grade 8 student to help others learn the family names in French. Click here (will not work on an iPad).

Learn French Family Names


9 Responses

  1. Wow! Thank you for your detailed reflection. Not having tried it at all, you have guided me around some pitfalls already. I will be wrapping my head around this further over the summer.

  2. Richard Smith

    Thank you for sharing Mme. This was helpful and it has inspired me. It’s something I will start doing next year with my grade 8 core french students here in Ottawa.
    My question to you is if, you don’t mind my asking….Why are the presentations (slideshow in Google Slides) in english and not french? Is it because the students did not have enough vocabulary to produce the final project in french? Was it a question of time? Was it not an expectation? I’m simply asking because I would have a hard time accepting a final product in english when, to me, it should be in french. Am I being unrealistic? What are your thoughts? I’m researching the subject of Genius Hour and the 20% Time quite a bit and found your site one of the most helpful. Merci encore….

    • Hi Richard,
      Thanks so much for reading my blog and sharing your thoughts. I would love to pick your brain on the differences of Core French between southern Ontario and Ottawa (considering the difference daily exposure to French your students would see). With regards to the presentations, this task was something I had my Grade 8 class complete during the last month of school. (They had just come back from their end of the year field trip, and therefore motivation to do anything in class was low). I had been toying with the idea of what Genius Hour in a Core French class would look like for a long time, but really struggled to wrap my head around it. This has been the only time I have done it thus far, as I felt the timing was right to take a risk and try something different. One of the biggest challenges that I struggled with was whether or not genius hour projects would be completed in English or French. I find that students have a hard time creating their own “personalized dictionaries” in order to build the necessary words and expressions to share their specific research. Since every project was different, each project would require a different set of words and expressions. My original idea was to get them to blog about their progress every week, however time went a lot faster than anticipated.

      Another reason I struggled with having it in French, was that I wanted students to share their work with their peers. I felt that if each of them ended up doing a presentation on what they learned in French (with their own vocabulary set) students would have a lot of difficulty understanding one another (in turn, attention to presentations and behaviours become a problem). With presentations in English, students were truly able to understand and appreciated one anothers’ projects and more importantly learn about different cultural aspects. I really want them to appreciate it, and I felt that this was better done in English for this particular class at this particular time of year.

      It is obviously a goal of mine to figure out how I might be able to do similar projects in French, however I feel like in Core French (and because it is my students second language and most of them rarely if ever exposed to French outside of the classroom) that this would require A LOT more planning on my end (which almost takes away from the idea of genius hour). I would either have to come up with a set number of topics for genius hour that students could explore (and include words & expression lists), or the other option would be to spend a lot of time at the beginning addressing how to find the proper words & expressions. Don’t get me wrong, we do address that, but I find students end up ‘Google Translating’ everything because its ‘easier’.

      If you are interested on collaborating on something or brainstorming together, let me know! You can email me at myria.mallette at I am definitely interested in doing this again and finding ways to continue to improve projects.

  3. Mackenzie Neale

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience on Genius Hour! I love the idea of giving my students the freedom to research topics that they are passionate about that relate to French language and culture. I also wonder how to provide the structure they need to complete their projects in a timely and organized way. I teach grades 3-5 but when I observe the grade 6-8s at my school doing projects in French class I see them doing their research in English, then translating each word using Word Reference (or even full paragraphs in Google Translate) and cutting and pasting on to their presentation, then reading straight from the Google Slides to present to their peers. I would love to figure out a way to avoid this, as I find there may be learning happening in terms of cultural knowledge, but the language piece is missing. I wonder whether giving them the list of possible projects would then allow you to give them select websites or print resources in the target language that you know are at their language-ability level. I use AIM in my classes and I know that if they searched for topics on the internet they would find websites and articles written in a level of French much higher than what they are capable of (although they do have the necessary skills to communicate well, but just in the pared-down language). What are your thoughts?

    • Hi Mackenzie! THanks so much for sharing your thoughts! I COULDN’T AGREE MORE!!! You said it perfectly!! I watch the same thing happen with my junior & intermediates with regards to using a dictionary and plopping words in a row, or Googling it. In Core French I find it really hard to strike that balance between getting students to understand new authentic texts and helping them gain an appreciation of the culture. If they don’t understand the written and oral texts that teach them about the culture, how will they ever be able to appreciate it? Not only that, I find in many cases they get frustrated at their lack of understanding and therefore it becomes counterproductive because they innately want to quit when they don’t feel successful. I don’t know what the solution is right now except for creating the texts ourselves as teachers and sharing them with others to use in their classes as well. I think narrowing the list of project choices would aid with this issue, however all of the resources would still need to be created. I think that choice is important and a great way to engage kids and I think the whole point of Genius Hour is allowing them to choose their passions to research. The only thing I do know is that I will try the projects again, and it will never the same way that I did it before. One of my goals is to have students complete the projects in the target language. I am not sure how I will get there (As I do think it is just as important for their peers to understand it to appreciate it). I think it will involve a lot of work on my end creating resources and preparing. What do you think? How do you think we can get there?

  4. Tammy Wilson

    Hi Myria,
    As promised, I have been trying to wrap my head around this all summer. My hope is that adopting this approach will allow me to better address the multiple levels in one of my classes. In all other classes I intend to continue using AIM – I am a diehard AIM teacher. My struggle is with a grade 6,7,8 class with students ranging from CEFR A1 to B1. Several of the students have learning challenges and I feel that my best bet is to have a more individualized approach to teaching – or something that can easily be adapted to all levels. I just could not successfully adapt AIM in a way that kept my strongest students engaged and challenged without leaving my weaker students behind (and therefore encouraging them to be frustrated and disruptive). Like Richard, I cannot accept not using the target language, so I am leaning to a more limited and structured format. In the past, I have worked quite a bit with video chatting. This is fairly motivational for most students. I have a process for preparing students of all levels to participate in some way, successfully in a video chat. So far, this has been limited to speaking to other French language learners. I am wondering if you see a way to incorporate PBL or Genius Hour passion projects. I keep circling around having students figure out what they would like to speak to a francophone about, and then finding a way to entice a conversation. I imagine this happening in the second half of the year, following experience with chatting with other FSL students. If I do this, students would build anchor charts as a class initially, but then, I think… suggest ideas/projects/francophone targets as individuals, and in a Survivor kind of way try to convince other students to vote for their ideas (perhaps students who were dissatisfied with their own ideas, could ditch them and join others?) Perhaps some could be ‘voted off the island’. A maximum number of students per project? Maybe only pairs? Their goals could be:
    Philanthropy oriented (Je veux vendre _______ pour gagner de l’argent pour _________ alors je vais promouvoir mon projet avec ___________(un vidéo, des affiches, etc)
    Promote bilingualism: (Je veux trouver un correspondant francophone avec qui je peux discuter mes intérêts)
    To have a francophone respond to a letter/video message/video chat (a French athlete, sports team, writer, singer, band, artist, activist, company or business…) (Je veux parler avec ______)
    Creating (Song-writing/short film/Animation/Game) – Although here I have concerns about the coding or animation tool being English…)
    Hmm… maybe I could pair up with another class of FSL learners again… pair off, or groups that mix kids from both schools…and have them tackle a project in those groups… they would have to promote their project to both classes and try to get enough students involved to make it fly… it could be clear from the beginning that ideas could be tweaked by students thinking of dropping their own to join onto another idea… hmm…
    In the end, students could present their results to both classes via video chat to allow questions…
    Grading would look like?
    This is where my circling is currently at. Do you have any thoughts or input? Do you think it could work? What weaknesses do you see? Does it allow enough room to accommodate the principles of passion projects or PBL?
    It could be differentiated by guiding the student to determine a simple enough or complex enough output? And by providing more or less structure?
    I think I am a bit control freak and having difficultly letting go enough to make the leap!
    Any input will be appreciated.

    • When it comes to ‘genius hour’ or PBL for me, I try to think of it less as ‘losing control’ and more of empowering and teaching the students to make responsible decisions about their own education. I love how it plays so nicely into ‘drawing on student interest’, but in Core French I found it very tricky to teach the necessary language around a bunch of individual projects. I found the easy part was ‘letting go of control’ of what they studied, the difficult part for me was keeping everyone on task and helping everyone find their way with so many different topics that I haven’t ‘planned in advance’. We are trying to get them to learn about different topics on top of teaching them the second language at the same time. I found this tricky.

      I really like the idea of having them work in small groups for this. I feel like it would be less overwhelming for you as the teacher to tailor to each group and help develop the necessary words and expressions for. And like you said, within each group too, if you have students with different abilities, they will each then be able to work at their level with the language that is at their level. This might provide the little bit of structure necessary in order to help make genius hour or ‘pbl’ successful in a second language classroom.

      In reflection from when I had done this, I would probably generate a list of several different topics of interest to my students (that I would know having taught them for so many years). From here I could then generate some base vocabulary around to give them, but I still think a big focus would need to be spent on teaching students how to find the proper words and expressions needed in order to express themselves in the target language. I haven’t nailed down best strategies or tools to use in order to do this yet. (any suggestions????) From here, I would allow students to choose a project based on a generalized topic (or I might come up with 2-3 different project ideas for each topic for those students who are indecisive and really struggle to create their own project and need more direct instructions). I would allow some of higher level students to submit proposals to me if they choose and if they can’t find something that peeks their interest at all, but with those specific students they will likely be able to work more independently and I could work through details with them as they go to help guide them along.

      I really like your idea of progression from talking with other FSL learner, to build confidence, moving towards speaking with Francophones. (Where are you finding these people to connect with?? ) At OMLTA last year I came to your Google Hangout session and would love to hear more of the specifics as to how you get your students ready for spontaneous conversations with other FSL learners and how you teach them to essentially continue a conversation (maybe more than just the ‘typical’ core French conversation i.e. Hi my name is jack. What is your name? My name is Jane. How old are you? I am 10. And you?. etc etc etc) I think connecting online whether it be a video chat, having students write a blog, create a youtube video that can be shared, connecting on twitter, etc. is a must. It gives students that authentic audience and a sense of real purpose for their work. I find engagement and work improves when students feel there is a real reason for what they are doing.

      When it comes to the Coding ideas, the number one thing we do is change the language settings to French. Scratch can do this at the bottom of the webpage (and might be an inquiry activity for some students to explore – i.e. when the language is changed, can they explore to figure out what the commands do?) If there are too many commands, they might want to start with something like Scratch Jr. on an iPad or Tickle. If you change the language settings on the device to French (definitely with Tickle, and I am not sure about Scratch Jr. yet) Another idea I have toyed around with, but didn’t have the time to implement, was having my jr/int students (the ones interested) create games in Scratch, Hopscotch or Tickle that reinforce a learning concept for my younger students. I.e. they could create a game that pops the name of the colour up, and three different coloured circles, and students need to select the right colour in order to move forward in the game. Just one simple idea, would take some playing, but would be really neat to see results.

      I love what you are trying to do and the questions you are asking! It has me intrigued! If you ever want to generate ideas together, let me know! I would love to connect further and pick one anothers’ brains! I know for myself, in the future I would like to explore doing ‘genius hour’ in French, but need to wrap my head around how each student (or group like you proposed) will use a different vocabulary set and how they would talk and interact not having the same ones. The other question is, in doing something like this, how do we address all of the different strands??? Or depending on how long it is, or how much time is spent on it (if its just a small part of the daily program) maybe it only addresses one or two strands, and other tasks and activvities throughout daily class address the other two strands.

      When it comes to grading it, I would look closely at the curriculum and decide where it fit best. If I was having my students write a letter about their topic, then I would find the written expectations that they will meet. If they are going to be conversing, then I would take a closer look at spoken interaction. When you have thought a bit more about it, if you want to chat further about this part, we could again hash out some ideas. Would love to hear more of your thoughts and reflections on this. Makes for some very interesting discussion!!!

  5. Tammy Wilson

    Hi Myria, Thanks for your response. I am going to love this conversation!

    The things I am trying out are driven by the fact that I teach a triple split across two divisions. Having a 6,7,8 class means that I have the whole class for 40 minutes, we have recess and then I have the 7s and 8s on their own. I use AIM with the whole class, but need something for the 7-8s. I actually love this arrangement. It does mean though, that I do things differently.

    The control issue is around the exclusive use of French. As you explained, free choice is just too much ground to cover and still maintain the French only expectation. I feel I need to limit their choice so that their vocabulary is still maintainable, and so that their conversation is comprehended most of the time by most people in the class. Otherwise they are not communicating, and we are off track. So far, providing some, limited choice has worked better than total open season. For example, we are going to video chat with a certain class… what topic would you like to suggest we prepare? I would like to open this up a bit more, but am searching for a way that will provide enough structure for French only.

    With respect to grading, it is a ‘walk the talk’ issue for me. The CEFR has provided us with a scaffolded view of language acquisition. I love it. I love that it structures my feedback and next steps for students and gives them an accurate vision of where they are and where they are going. When students come into my class, I tell them that understanding what they do or don’t know about French currently is important only because it informs their next steps. I don’t want my 6s to feel like they are way behind because they are in grade 6. I don’t want kids who transfer in from the public board (they start French in grade 4 and we start in grade 1) to feel like they are too far behind to be good at French. Whatever the reason (IEP kinds of reasons, family upset kinds of reasons, social insecurity kinds of reasons…whatever) for a student’s current level, I just want them to focus on their personal next steps, rather than how everyone else in the class is doing. Growth Mindset is a huge factor in building kids grit and perseverance. Students are less apt to give up or feel threatened by the challenge. At the same time, I need to assign grades that reflect current practice in Ontario (Growing Success). To me, you cannot assign a certain CEFR level to a specific grade. You cannot force a child to acquire French at a specific rate. It IS important where they are at and what next steps they should take. I feel like a traitor telling them that I won’t compare them to other students and that their own personal progress is the important thing, regardless of where the rest of the class is at… and then turning around and giving them grades on their report card that serve no tangible purpose except to compare them to others. I am frustrated by my inability to find a solution that allows me to do what I say I am going to do.

    During the time since I replied to your post, I also saw a video shared by @richardsmithaim in which his students were in small groups at whiteboard type stations responding to questions or challenges put to the students by him. I think this was shared in the Ontario French Teachers Facebook page, but I can’t access it here at school to provide the link. I like this tweak to my current morning message routine. I like that more engagement is required on an individual level. I think if we tackle them slowly, we can break these big questions down for discussion. Not sure where it will go after this… (Photo of my bulletin board here – won’t attach to comment – will send in email)
    We will not be starting here for a few weeks – after the usual start up stuff and routines are established. (Just caught a spelling mistake – développez(r)- need to fix that first thing!) Penser différement is the Steve Jobs quote which is posted outside my door in French and English. (Many thanks to @MmeShipton for her esprit de développement steps). It will take some time to work through these… hopefully by then I have come up with some direction for them to go in with small group projects (I like the small group idea too). Not sure if I want to pick a direction or theme? Your blog comment about the book drive for Rwanda has inspired a lot of thought on my part… what if I limit them to some kind of project with a charitable or service aim? How might we connect with francophones? Francophones with service minded aims? Francophones in need somewhere in the world? How can I tie in blogging… or YouTube videos… What back-up project can I have in place for students needing more structure and guidance? How will I prevent having time spent researching in English? How will I differentiate?

    In answer to your questions about building the chats beyond the basics, I use a morning message-elbow chat-tapis roulant-video chat cycle to prep them. We build anchor charts as well go. Messages are informed by the previous day’s tapis roulant (embedded errors etc). Conversations are student driven. Anchor charts are shared between the two classes so everyone is on the same page. Lots of learning experiences along the way! We chat with other classes in this Board (elementary and secondary) as well as classes found on the Google+ community Mystery Hangouts for Foreign Language Teachers started by Sylvia Duckworth. My favourite pairing so far has been with other grade 8 classes destined for the same high school – genuine social need to succeed!
    À la prochaine!

  6. Tammy Wilson

    Actually – I PM’d you on Twitter. I don’t think I have an email address for you.

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