March 2, 2018 Blog, Fund Program

Genius Hour: How Principal Angela Sims Approaches Gifted Education

Students at Lenart Regional Gifted Center are “extremely inquisitive, creative and bright,” says Principal Angela Sims. Her students are always hungry for knowledge. One way that Angela satisfies their curiosity is by scheduling time during the day to work on independent projects. She has been keeping up with these brilliant minds since 2012, and now, in her sixth year as principal, she is working on harnessing students’ creativity in the classroom.

Angela and her teachers bring out creativity in students through project-based learning. Each week, students have “Genius Hour,” which is dedicated time to work on independent projects or explore new interests. Though the learning is self-guided, teachers check in along the way to guide students’ exploration and answer questions.

“Our students have a tendency to say they are ready for advanced topics, but just because they can read a high school book doesn’t mean they are necessarily ready to understand it,” she says. Genius Hour gives them an opportunity to satisfy their intellectual curiosity in a focused and directed way.

Students also participate in the citywide competition Invention Convention, through which they design solutions to challenges they see in their own lives. From a solar-powered hat that can charge a phone, to a foldable parking spot saver for Chicago drivers who claim “dibs” in the winter, the range of solutions is endless.

In the 2016-17 school year, five students were selected for the national Invention Convention in Washington, D.C. One student designed a pill bottle for patients with Alzheimer’s or Dementia. The bottle shakes if the patient forgets to take the proper dosage. This student’s product was selected for development, and this past summer, he worked on a prototype to bring his invention to life.

Beyond teaching problem-solving strategies, Angela believes that project-based learning helps students develop intellectually within the scope of their understanding. “It’s not always about increasing the level of rigor; it’s about the depth in which we go into different topics,” she says. “We have to add these layers on top of something students already know, going deeper on the continuum rather than further.”

Angela participated in the Summer Design Program in 2015 to explore how personalized learning could bring this depth into the everyday classroom. She and her teacher team learned to restructure classes with flexible seating, add small-group instruction and provide differentiated support with technology. “We have students who are leaps and bounds ahead of the pack, and this is how we continuously provide that level of challenge,” she says.

Like her students, Angela is always looking to learn more and dig deep intellectually. “I’ve learned over the years that my students and I learn in similar ways,” she shares. “We are always looking for something new.”

In 2016, Angela joined the Chicago Principals Fellowship to expand her learning and meet with other professionals. During the fellowship, Angela proposed a program similar to the Algebra Exit Exam. Her policy would expand this placement test to the sciences by allowing middle school students to earn high school credit for biology. She looks forward to incorporating lessons from her own project-based learning in the Fellowship at Lenart in the 2017-18 school year.

Learn more about the Chicago Principals Fellowship.