A day before the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s tragic death, and on the very day that King delivered the speech that is the topic of the piece, Scott Newstok '91 invites his fellow alumni to read "The Crafts of Freedom," his commentary and analysis of MLK's Mountaintop speech. The rhetoric of King reminds Newstok of his days at Marshall.
"I distinctly recall Chico Anderson's powerful invocation of King's rhetoric in his courses as well as in his Chapel services - my first introduction to the civil rights movement," explains Newstok.
A trebuchet launching golf balls across a parking lot, visitors scrolling through entire websites created by eighth graders, and adults huddling around a microwave to watch grapes ignite into plasma. These were just some of the scenes one could find walking through Marshall School April 15, as the eighth graders proudly displayed a year's worth of work at the second annual Genius Hour Showcase.
Marshall Middle School teacher Lori Durant implemented Genius Hour as an idea from Google, where employees would use 20% of their time to work on a project of their choice with little to no restrictions. Many of these projects went on to become some of Google's most successful, including Gmail. Durant was able to foster this creative energy in the Marshall eighth grade classroom.
"It's all about student choice and trying to give them a voice and encourage them to learn without us saying 'jump this high and here's the box,' because that doesn't really show learning and they're not interested in a lot of those things," said Durant.
Since the beginning of the school year, students researched, experimented, failed and prospered with a project of their choice, all while blogging about the process. Wednesday's Genius Hour showcase was a chance to display the year's worth of work. But even the showcase itself was rooted in the spirit of unstructured academic freedom as students could present in whatever way they chose. Marshall's Chapel and Middle School Commons were filled with poster boards, full-scale models, and computer screens displaying customized websites while the classrooms were home to Ted Talk-style presentations where students fielded questions from adults in attendance.
"I started this last year and I was trying to sell my kids on it and I say 'here's the thing, it's kind of risky' and I was really nervous about it because it's 20% of the class time and this is an independent school," said Durant. "So I was a little worried about parents saying, 'what are you doing? We're paying tuition for what?'"
But the parents who stopped Durant in the halls Wednesday night sang a very different tune.
"Just wonderful," one parent told Durant.
Durant originally planned Genius Hour to fit seamlessly into her literature curriculum, but this idea would quickly change as Durant gauged her student's excitement levels.
"Their faces were just like lighting up and I said, 'but you know, this is Marshall, this is a literature class, so it has to be connected to that' and their faces just went back," said Durant. "I could see it, it was like 'oh, another school project.' So on the spot I said 'I'll rethink that and get back to you.'"
Without any further thought, Durant eliminated the literature requirement and hasn't looked back since. Students took the freedom to choose their project and ran with it.
From a go-kart built from scratch, to a smartphone app made to help young students learn basic math, to a presentation on the misconnections drawn between vaccination and autism, Marshall eighth graders took full advantage of the freedom granted by Durant.
David Olsen stood with his trebuchet towering above him. In addition to launching objects the length of a football field, building a trebuchet allowed Olsen to learn very academic topics in an obviously enjoyable way.
"It helped me learn a little bit about some physics and how it works," said Olsen.
This echoes the outcome Durant wanted her students to achieve: "confidence in their ability to own their learning. And to know they don't need to have an adult to say 'this is what learning is.'"
Having concluded the second annual Genius Hour Showcase, Durant said it will return for a third year in 2016.