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‘Genius Hour’ puts the fun into learning

The way Delilah Witt describes it to me, her “Genius Hour” at Whittier Elementary School has been downright magical.

Students in a Harry Potter class at Whittier Elementary School were given Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry acceptance letters. Delilah Witt, 8, proudly holds up her letter. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Enrolled in a Harry Potter-themed class, the 8-year-old gets to experience firsthand the fanciful scenes of J.K. Rowling’s mind – a dream of many before her, including this reporter.

No longer exclusively on the pages of a book or on the big screen, the Harry Potter universe came to life in the halls of Whittier for students taking a wizard tour to kick off the first day of a Harry Potter class.

The school contained the train station’s Platform 9¾, Ollivander’s Wand Shop and, of course, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The students also visited a Gringotts Wizarding Bank area, which per the books, is a magical banking institution run by goblins.

“Miss Linda out there was the ‘goblin,’ ” Delilah explained, pointing to the school’s secretary.

It wasn’t anything extravagant. The principal’s office was the wand shop, a brick wall in the hall the train station platform. But the Harry Potter details were sprinkled throughout the school and could be spotted by the trained, Potter-fan eye.

Third-grade teacher Malay Nivanh demonstrates how to make a wand for her class. Crafting and creativity, teamwork and a sense of identity are some of the key objectives for her Harry Potter class. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal )

In Malay Nivanh’s classroom, I immediately noticed the Hogwarts houses’ banners on the wall. For the Muggles reading this, there are four groups, or houses, in Hogwarts that team like-minded students together.

It’s a fun type of camaraderie. Delilah oozes with excitement as she tells me she’s a Gryffindor and I offer up that I am a Ravenclaw.

On a recent Thursday, I watch students busily craft wands. I notice Delilah has her spells, potions and charms book on her desk, and remember she told me she was most excited to learn charms.

The Harry Potter class is just one of several Genius Hour options at the school.

Genius Hour is an extra chunk of learning at the end of the school day for APS schools rated as in need of “more rigorous intervention,” or MRI, after a string of consecutive F school grades – an evaluation system and accountability model in place under then-Gov. Susana Martinez.

At Whittier, nearly 185 students in first through fifth grade are in Genius Hour every Monday through Thursday.

The kids get to pick which subject they want to learn about, not unlike an elective in high school.

Ashlynn Baca, left, practices string art with her fourth-grade teacher Kim Romo. The class is one of several offerings for “Genius Hour” time at Whittier Elementary School. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

They are given a list of class choices every trimester – this term’s selections also include comic and cartoon drawing, global arts and crafts, running club, chess, and string art.

Gabriella Blakey, associate superintendent for Zone 1, pitched Genius Hour for APS. After researching school redesign, she found this concept and learned it originated from internet giant Google.

“This is what Google does to make sure employees are creative,” she said.

Genius Hour is part of multifaceted plans in place to improve Whittier and the other MRI schools, Los Padillas and Hawthorne elementaries. The plans, which have been in place since August, also include changes such as hiring new principals and adding professional development time for teachers.

Blakey said she has seen positive effects on test scores. “We can’t contribute it to one factor, but giving kids a chance to explore seems to show classroom growth,” she said.

Tim Tribou

Genius Hour is also having positive effects on parents. Tim Tribou, physical education teacher and Genius Hour commissioner, said the extra time has discouraged early pickups because kids look forward to the end of the day. And he sees more parents involved at the school because of Genius Hour showcases at the end of the term.

APS is exploring the adoption of Genius Hour at other schools, Blakey said.

Despite a new governor and changes coming to the MRI process, Genius Hour will likely stay. The idea is to have a longer school day to incorporate more learning for these kids without burning them out.

After all, Whittier Principal Kim Finke said, school is supposed to be fun and there are some things you can’t learn in a textbook.

“When you talk about the direction school reform has taken in the last two decades, there’s this idea that we need more reading, more math,” she said. “We definitely need those things, but we forget sometimes we learn in other ways: by playing, by being creative.”

And, she said, Genius Hour affords access to activities and experiences kids at Whittier may not otherwise get.

“We had a games class, and they sat down and played board games. You would be amazed at how many of our kids have just never had that experience,” she said. “It’s a social thing, learning how to take turns, learning how to strategize and plan.”

Kobe Quintana

Archery is a good example, too. It was made available to Whittier students through Genius Hour. Kobe Quintana was telling me about it.

Described by Finke as athletic and competitive, I expected 10-year-old Quintana to tell me something like archery makes him feel like a superhero or Robin Hood.

But he actually focused on the mindfulness benefits of archery, saying it made him focused and calm.

As for the Harry Potter class, Nivanh explained to me that under the fun and the geeking out, the aim is to teach kids creativity, team work and understanding a sense of self.

UpFront is a regular Journal news and opinion column. Comment directly to Shelby Perea at 823-3913 or