Bonsai or Banzai? Unleashing Genius in the Classroom


Defining moments. Watershed experiences. Lessons etched in our memories. A message woven throughout our school years defining for us what school is, and who we are as learners.

My “Banzai!” moment, came working with a little plant in Mr. Rigger’s 6th grade classroom. One of the prominent functions of the Japanese term “Banzai” is to be used as a patriotic cry or joyous shout. Unfettered enthusiasm. Passion. A quality that was sorely lacking during my middle-school years.

Mr Rigger was like most teachers I had experienced. We followed routine. Structure. We sat in rows, no desks touching. Unless it was recess or dismissal, we never moved around the room. Teaching was designed to shape us in our little contained classrooms, and in our little contained subjects. We copied outlines. We completed worksheets. We read textbooks, from beginning to end. We were little seedlings, wilting within the school model.

Passion, enthusiasm and excitement lived only beyond the confines of our building.

But while Mr. Rigger kept to the educational model of the day, he did have a few enthusiasms of his own. He cared deeply about the state of violence in our nation, and the easy access we have to guns. He also loved horticulture. These passions oozed out in his discussions, and his excitement pulled us in. We cared, because he cared. He invited us to spend our recess and after school time, writing letters to local politicians advocating gun control. He taught us how to cultivate and care for various plants. These were the best moments of 6th grade. These were the moments when our genius was unleashed.

It was during these times that we saw learning no longer as a “school thing”, but as a vehicle for opening the doors to the outside world. It was a means to explore our own passions, and hopefully, share our voice with whoever would listen. Ironically, my “Banzai” moments of unbridled enthusiasm came on days after ‘school’ had ended, writing gun control essays and working on a particular little tree.

It was a Bonsai tree.

The Bonsai is a tree or shrub that has been dwarfed, through pruning the roots and pinching the branches. It is grown in a pot or other container and trained to produce a desired shape or effect. During the regular school days, we were his little bonsai trees. We were being shaped, trimmed, and pruned in little containers. It was stifling. Boring. Rigorous.

It was school.

It sent a very different message than our after-school gatherings about the value of learning. During the school day, books were anchors of expectations and strategies. We read, because we had to. We read what we were told to read, for as long as we could endure. We wrote about school things, none of which I recall because I wasn’t invested in any of it. Words were powerless strings of letters, following arbitrary rules, mandated by people who lived long ago. I accomplished the tasks, got the grades, and moved on.

But after school, books were portals, ushering us into new world beyond. Words were powerful tools to play with, invent, stretch, and mold in order to craft a message, poem, play, or persona. Writing was a megaphone, allowing us to share our voice to with the world beyond.

It was in these after-school “Banzai” moments that I learned to love learning. It was in these precious experiences that I learned the power of my voice, and the expanse of my potential. The “Banzai” moments of exploring our own passions and interests, freed me from the “Bonsai” model of school.

These were my first inklings of what has become “Genius Hour”, “20% time”, “Passion Hour” or “Big Idea” in our classroom. My students are seedlings. They are precious little plants ready to burst forth. They deserve a model that supports their eagerness to vigorously explore their talents and passions, and frees them to discover the universe around them. They were not created to suffocate in a rigorous model that seeks only to prune and shape them in little contained subject strands and standards.

They need vigor over rigor.

They need energy over efficiency.

They need opportunities for pursuing their “Banzai!” instead of producing as a Bonsai.

Our class just completed their “Big Idea” presentations. They were asked two questions (thanks to @AngelaMaiers):

1. What breaks your heart?

2. What are you going to do about it?

They innovated new ways to impact the world around them. They developed their ideas and opinions, finding their voice. They explored opposing views, different cultures, and historical artifacts. They articulated their findings, publishing works and presenting their learning.

Heart attacks.

Animal farms.

Child labor.

Global climate change.

Children without books.



The Ebola virus.

Puppy mills.

Black Rhino extinction.

Water scarcity.

Disappearing rain-forests.

These are our passions; the topics that break our heart, and engage our minds. These are our “Banzais!”

But they also learned about themselves as learners. Reflecting on their projects, students commented:

“I can change the world.”
“I underestimated myself.”
“I AM able to do important things NOW, not just when I am older.”
“As young as I am, I can change the world.”
“We are the next generation and we have to help this world.”
“We can accomplish whatever we want.”

These students remind us that they were never created to be merely molded and shaped in little classroom containers. They are not to be pruned and pinched like little bonsai trees.

They are to be unleashed, set free to follow their passions. To find their voice. To make their mark. To Banzai!


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