Classroom Technology

A Student-Staffed ‘Genius Bar': Why It’s Working for This Middle School

By Alyson Klein — July 05, 2023 4 min read
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When Elizabeth Blye became the librarian at Anne M. Dorner Middle School in Ossining, N.Y. she knew she would ditch her long-serving predecessor’s devotion to the Dewey decimal system and organize the space in a way that made sense to students.

And she knew who to turn to initially for help: Middle schoolers like Owen Brennan and Khadija Mustapha, who had been in Blye’s class in a previous role at another school in the district.

But she didn’t know just how far their partnership in giving students ownership over the library would go.

Less than two years later, the Ossining school district’s only middle school has its own full-fledged “Genius bar”—inspired by Apple’s similarly named help desk—staffed by students who can recommend a graphic novel or mystery series to their classmates, re-shelve and repair books, fix a Chromebook, even give teachers one-on-one help in using technology.

The program is set to expand to the district’s high school, where students can participate as part of a course, for credit. Owen and Khadija have even earned Google certifications, a micro credential that most teachers in the district haven’t matched.

The Genius Bar began as a curiosity, with other students asking Owen, Khadija, and others why they were working behind the library’s circulation desk. Bacon and Blye turned it into an afterschool club, with more than 20 members, many of whom drop into the library at lunch and other times of the day, as well as the scheduled time after school.

The students have become a fix-it crew for the rest of the district. Case-in-point: The district’s early childhood education center bought a weather-related tech tool to use with its students, but no one there had time to figure out how to assemble it.

“So they shipped it over to us and the Genius kids put it together,” said Allison Bacon, the district’s coordinator of instructional technology, who was among the educators and students from Ossining who spoke about the program at the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference in Philadelphia in June.

“Every week, new boxes would appear of different things and people were like, ‘hey, can you have the kids build this or can you have the kids make this?’” Bacon said.

When artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT emerged this past school year, the Genius Bar kids were among the first to experiment with them. “It almost became like a pilot group where students try out new things, figure out what works, figure out what’s exciting for kids,” Bacon said. That, in turn, allows “kids to really explore in a way that they might not get to in other parts of their day.”

How the program helps save time and money

The program has been a money and time saver, Bacon said. It can cost $150 to $300 to send out one Chromebook for repair, she said. What’s more, having students act as the repair squad kept “everything in house and make it really, really fast rather than a two-week turnaround to get your kids’ devices back to them.”

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It’s also helped some students find a social “sense of belonging” as they navigate middle school. “Kids have learned to work with kids in other grades and [build relationships] with kids from other social groups that they otherwise wouldn’t have been a part of,” Bacon said.

It might have even inspired some students to check out a career path that never would have occurred to them otherwise.

“I think a lot of people probably didn’t realize that they were interested in taking apart Chromebooks and learning about technology,” Owen said. “But after this, they realized that it’s maybe something that they want to pursue” professionally.

Ossining has made sure that students can continue to hone these skills after they leave middle school. At the urging of some of the original Genius Bar students, the district will offer the program as an elective computer science course at the high school level.

To be sure, Ossining isn’t the only district that taps students to fix devices. Districts are increasingly experimenting with this model, in part to deal with the ballooning number of laptops and tablets purchased with pandemic relief funds that usually arrived without a commensurate increase in district IT staff. Organizations like Digital Promise, a nonprofit that promotes the smart use of technology in education, encourage the idea.

But it’s less typical to find a district that has made the program about both tech and library space, educators who attended the session where Ossining presented said.

Still, educators wondered how Blye and Bacon make sure the Genius Bar doesn’t just turn into a big middle school social session.

Educators at the school don’t necessarily discourage that socializing. When students are having fun, “you might not bring a broken Chromebook out [for them to fix],” Blye said. “It’s like OK, well, let’s talk about our favorite books and who’s reading what and what’s going on? And you can kind of lean into the atmosphere of that.”

Coverage of afterschool learning opportunities is supported in part by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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