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        Everyday Genius - Meet the MacArthur Fellows | MacArthur Fellows Program

        This lesson, inspired by the stories and experiences of MacArthur Foundation Fellowship recipients, introduces students to the origins and significance of the concept of “genius” and how it influences our perceptions and expectations of others and ourselves. Through the learning activities, students will explore how creative problem solving, enthusiasm, and hard work power “genius”.

        This resource is part of the MacArthur Fellows Program Collection.

        Lesson Summary

        The MacArthur Fellowship is a grant made to individuals who show “exceptional creativity” in their work and demonstrate the desire and potential for continued innovation in the future. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched the Fellowship in 1981 and grants are awarded annually to 20 to 30 Americans who are “deemed to be intelligent, creative, driven and doing important work.” The grant is described by the Foundation as a an “investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential” that enables recipients to “exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.”

        In the media, the award is commonly referred to as the “Genus Grant,” but the foundation has expressed that “’genius’ is both too narrow and too broad to describe MacArthur Fellows,” who come from a wide range of disciplines yet share the common quality of creative innovation.

        In this lesson, students will explore the meaning and significance of the idea of “genius,” and how our understanding of this term shapes our perceptions and expectations of others and ourselves. The lesson begins with students collaboratively brainstorming a list of people they think of as “geniuses” and comparing, contrasting, and discussing the qualities and characteristics that define a genius. Students will then examine the origins of the concept of “genius” in classical Roman mythology and its evolution from something everyone has, to a description of who a limited number of people are.

        The class will then learn about the MacArthur Fellowship Program and read and discuss the 2005 essay “It Isn’t Easy Being a Genius” by Jim Collins, 2003 MacArthur Fellow. Working in groups, students will view a selection of video interviews with MacArthur Fellows and compare/contrast their stories, challenges, qualities, and achievements and discuss how these factors contribute to each Fellow’s ongoing work.

        Finally, students will imagine that, like the classical Romans, they have a personal “genius.” They will identify the skills, talents, and strengths associated with their genius and articulate in an essay and/or multi-media presentation how their genius will empower them to make positive contributions to their community.

        Time Allotment

        90 minutes + Assignments (Approximately two 45-minute class periods)

        Learning Objectives

        Students will:

        • Examine the origin, evolution, and limitations of the concept of “genius”
        • Compare/contrast the factors that contribute to MacArthur Fellowship recipients’ success and understand the role that creativity plays in problem solving and innovation
        • Define the skills, talents, and strengths associated with their “personal genius” and describe how their qualities will empower them to make positive contributions to their community

        Prep for Teachers

        Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

        • Familiarize yourself with the MacArthur Fellows Program Overview video and MacArthur Fellows Program handout
        • Select and view 2-4 MacArthur Fellows interview videos. You can choose videos from one of the Subject Area Video Sets created for this lesson or any of the 50 MacArthur Fellows interviews available in PBS LearningMedia (see Media Resources below).
        • Print out copies of the Student Handouts
        • Prepare the white butcher paper and markers for the Introductory Activity and the multimedia projector for Learning Activity 2


        Media Resources:

        History/Social Studies:

        • Matthew Desmond: Matthew Desmond is an urban sociologist revealing the impact of eviction on poor families and the role of housing policy in sustaining poverty and racial inequality in large American cities.
        • Robin Fleming: Medieval Historian drawing on archaeological and textual sources to provide fresh insight into the social, economic, and cultural lives of inhabitants of late Roman and medieval Britain
        • LaToya Ruby Frazier: LaToya Ruby Frazier is a Photographer and Video Artist capturing the consequences of postindustrial decline for marginalized communities and illustrating how photography can promote dialogue about historical change and social responsibility.
        • Jerry Mitchell: Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter with the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger whose courageous efforts have ensured that unpunished murders from the Civil Rights era are finally prosecuted.
        • Ai-Jen Poo: Labor Organizer Ai-jen Poo is catalyzing a vibrant, worker-led movement for improved working conditions and labor standards for domestic or private-household workers.
        • Marina Rustow: Marina Rustow is a historian mining textual materials from the Cairo Geniza to deepen our understanding of medieval Muslim and Jewish communities.

        English Language Arts & Literacy:

        • Junot Díaz: Fiction Writer using raw, vernacular dialogue and spare, unsentimental prose to draw readers into the various and distinct worlds that immigrants must straddle.
        • Ta-Nehisi Coates: Coates is a journalist interpreting complex and challenging issues around race and racism through the lens of personal experience and nuanced historical analysis.
        • Alison Bechdel: Cartoonist and Graphic Memoirist Bechdel is expanding the expressive potential of the graphic form in intricate narratives that explore the complexities of familial relationships.
        • Tarell Alvin McCraney: Playwright, evoking a sense of our shared humanity in works that explore the diversity of the African American experience and imbue the lives of ordinary people with epic significance.
        • Peter Hessler: Long-Form Journalist crafting keenly observed accounts of ordinary people responding to the complexities of life in such rapidly changing societies as Reform Era China.

        STEM, Mathematics, & Science:

        • Jad Abumrad: Radio Host and Producer engaging a new generation of listeners with audio explorations of scientific and philosophical questions that evoke a sense of adventure and recreate the thrill of discovery.
        • Amir Abo-Shaeer: Physics Teacher inspiring and preparing public high school students for careers in science and mathematics through an innovative curriculum that integrates applied physics, engineering, and robotics.
        • Shwetak Patel: Sensor Technologist and Computer Scientist inventing low-cost, easy-to-deploy sensor systems that leverage existing infrastructures to enable users to track household energy consumption and to make the buildings we live in more responsive to our needs.
        • Alex Truesdell: An adaptive designer and fabricator constructing low-tech, affordable, and customized tools and furniture that enable children with disabilities to participate actively in their homes, schools, and communities.
        • Heidi Williams: An economist unraveling the forces that hinder or spur medical innovation using empirically based studies, mathematics and new models for reviewing data that are informing public policy.

        Performing and Visual Arts:

        • Kyle Abraham: Choreographer and dancer probing the relationship between identity and personal history through a unique hybrid of traditional and vernacular dance styles that speaks to a new generation of dancers and audiences.
        • Alison Bechdel: Cartoonist and Graphic Memoirist Bechdel is expanding the expressive potential of the graphic form in intricate narratives that explore the complexities of familial relationships.
        • Mark Bradford: Mixed-media artist who incorporates ephemera and found objects from urban environments into works on canvas that are rich in texture and visual complexity.
        • Claire Chase: Arts Entrepreneur forging a new model for the commissioning, recording, and live performance of classical music and opening new avenues of artistic expression for the twenty-first-century musician.
        • LaToya Ruby Frazier: LaToya Ruby Frazier is a Photographer and Video Artist capturing the consequences of postindustrial decline for marginalized communities and illustrating how photography can promote dialogue about historical change and social responsibility.
        • Lin-Manuel Miranda: Actor, playwright, composer, and performer expanding the conventions of musical theater with a popular culture sensibility and musical styles and voices that reflect the diverse cultural panorama of the American urban experience, most notably in Hamilton: An American Musical.
        • Elizabeth Turk: Sculptor transforming her signature medium of marble, a traditionally monumental and prone-to-fracture material, into intricate, seemingly weightless works of art.
        • Carrie Mae Weems: Photographer and video installation artist examining the complex and contradictory legacy of African American identity, class, and culture in the United States.

        Student Handouts:

        Equipment and Supplies:

        • Computers with Internet access
        • LCD projector
        • Speakers
        • Whiteboard/ blackboard, markers/chalk
        • Pens/pencils and writing paper
        • White butcher paper (Kraft Paper)

        Web Sites:


        Foundation: an organization that is created and supported with money that people give in order to do something that helps society

        Genius: A very smart or talented person; a person who has a level of talent or intelligence that is very rare or remarkable

        Innovation: A new idea, device, or method; the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods

        Adapted from Mirriam-Webster Dictionary

        Introductory Activity

        Introductory Activity: Who are you calling a Genius? (20 minutes)

        1. Write the word “Genius” on the board and ask students: Who do you think of when you hear this word? Give students two-minutes to brainstorm and write down examples of “Geniuses”.
        2. Have students organize into small groups of 3-5 students to compare/contrast their responses. Ask each group to combine and list their “geniuses” on a large piece of butcher paper and write a brief note about why each person is on the list.
        3. Silent Gallery Walk: have students walk around the class to review each group’s list.
        4. Follow with a discussion using the prompts below, as needed (students can discuss in their groups or as a class):
          • What patterns do we see? (Examples: gender, race, cultural background, age, modern/historical, etc.)
          • Are there “geniuses” that showed up on multiple lists?
          • What qualities make these people “geniuses”? (Record the responses)
          • Are our geniuses in similar disciplines (science, math, music, writing)?
          • What is missing? Can someone be a genius in areas other than the ones we identified? Why or why not? (Suggestions for consideration: musicians, visual artists, mathematicians, inventors, comic book artists/writers, community activists, computer software designers, community leaders, engineers, historians, dancers, journalists/reporters, language researchers, computer engineers, psychologists, lawyers, inventors, craftspeople, filmmakers, medical doctors, choir conductors, writers, teachers, students)
          • Are geniuses always famous/rich/powerful?
          • Do you know a genius? Can you share an example of someone from your community and describe what makes this person a genius?

        Learning Activities

        Learning Activity 1: How do we define a Genius? (10-20 minutes)

        1. Think-Pair-Share: Ask students to free-write a definition of the word “Genius” and then instruct them to pair-up and share/compare their responses. The pairs should refine their definitions together and present them to the class or to a small discussion group.
        2. Ask for volunteers to look up dictionary definitions for “genius” and combine these with the student responses to create a collaborative, working definition for the word that also incorporates some defining attributes (creativity, risk-taking, persistence, problem-solving, etc.). This definition can be revisited and refined throughout the lesson.
        3. Explain:

          The word genius is derived from the Latin genere meaning “to bring forth”. According to Roman mythology, everyone in antiquity had a genius (sometimes referred to as juno, for women). They believed that a genius was a type of guardian spirit that was assigned to each person at birth. Each person’s genius was responsible for granting and guiding that individual’s intelligence, creativity, talent, and ability throughout her/his life. Romans would celebrate and honor their personal genius each year on their birthdays. Following this tradition, Western cultures continued to use the term “genius” to refer to a quality someone had rather than what a person was. For example: “Shakespeare had a genius for poetry” rather than, “Shakespeare was a genius.” In the 17th century, the term genius began to be used to describe a small sub-set of people who were labeled as extraordinary based on social and cultural values of the day. The meaning of genius transformed from a universal attribute to the description of a privileged few, which is how we commonly use the word today.

          Adapted from:

        Learning Activity 2: Meet the MacArthur “Genius” Fellows (20 minutes)

        1. Explain that the class will learn about The MacArthur Fellowship Program and the work of their award recipients who are often referred to in the media as “MacArthur Geniuses.”
        2. Introduce the MacArthur Fellows Program Overview by distributing copies or asking volunteers to read it out loud.
        3. Distribute and discuss Handout 1: What is a MacArthur Fellowship? Then play the MacArthur Fellows Program video.
        4. Ask for volunteers to share their responses to the questions in Handout 1. Further discuss the video using the following prompts, as needed:
          • What surprised you the most?
          • Did you recognize any of the Fellows? Who and from where?
          • All of the Fellowship recipients featured in this video were chosen for the same award, but they are a very diverse group. What similarities and differences did you see? (For example: field of study, discipline, age, gender, race, interests, etc.) How does this group compare with our list of geniuses from the first activity?
          • What role does creativity play in each Fellow’s work?
          • The Fellows talk about the importance of being able to “take risks.” What types of risks do you think they are referring to? Why do you think risk-taking is important in their work?
          • What qualities did all of these people seem to share? How do these qualities compare with our definition of “genius”?
          • The MacArthur Fellows are often referred to as “geniuses.” Why do you think that is? Do you think they see themselves as geniuses? Do you think they are geniuses? Why or why not?
        5. Explain that the class will watch short interviews with a selection of MacArthur Fellows. (Select your videos from the Media Resources list.)
        6. Distribute Handout 2: Meet the Fellows and instruct students to complete the worksheet while watching the interviews.
        7. Have students return to their small groups, review their handouts, and discuss:
          • What are the Fellows’ similarities and differences?
          • What common factors do you think contribute to the Fellows’ success? (Natural talent, creativity, economic/social opportunity, dedication, hard work, personal investment, passion, tenacity)
          • In what ways have these “geniuses” used their skills and talents to make a contribution to their community/culture/society? Based on their interviews, why is it important for each of them to use their genius to benefit others?
        8. Have the groups revisit the working definition of genius from earlier and refine as needed.

        Learning Activity 3: It Isn’t Easy being a Genius (15 minutes)

        1. Ask students to find a new partner and distribute the article, "It Isn’t Easy Being a Genius" by Jim Collins (2003 MacArthur Fellow and bioengineer) to each group.
        2. Have them read the article together then write at least two discussion questions to share with the class or in small groups. Have students take turns sharing their questions and guiding the class discussion of the article.

          Sample discussion prompts:

          • How does Jim Collins react to receiving the call from the MacArthur Foundation? Why does he think it’s a prank call? What do you think that says about how he views himself?
          • How does his family react to the news that he is a MacArthur “Genius”?
          • Based on their reactions, how do you think the friends and family of Mr. Collins would define a “genius”? How does that definition compare/contrast with ours?
          • How does the label “Genius” change the expectations people have of him? Can you give some examples of the expectations and realities that he describes in the article?
          • Does Mr. Collins think he got this grant for being a genius? Why or why not? How does he describe the significance of the Fellowship to his daughter?
          • At the end of the article, Mr. Collins writes, “Congratulations new MacArthur fellows, you geniuses.” What message is he sending to the new Fellowship recipients?
          • If you were a MacArthur Fellow, what lesson would you learn from Mr. Collins’s article?

        Culminating Activity

        Culminating Activity: Getting to Know Your Genius (20 minutes + Take-home Assignment)

        1. Distribute Handout 3: Meet My Genius, and ask class to imagine that, like the classical Romans, everyone has a personal “Genius.” Explain that they will use the worksheet activities on Handout 3 to help learn more about their Genius and bring it to life. Remind them to reflect on the MacArthur Fellows’ stories and how each of them used their diverse qualities and talents to benefit society.
        2. Students will use the graphic organizer in Part A of Handout 3 to analyze their strengths, skills, interests and qualities.
        3. In Part B of Handout 3, students will use the prompts to help define the qualities of their personal Genius.
        4. Have students complete this activity by writing an essay describing how their Personal Genius will empower them to address an important issue or help them make a positive contribution to their community.
        5. If time and resources are available, students can further develop their Genius through illustrations, sculpture, multimedia media presentations, etc.

        Extension Activities

        1. More Fun Than Fun:

          “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” – Confucius, 6th century BCE Chinese philosopher and poet

          “Work is more fun than fun.“ Noël Coward, 20th century English actor

          As part of the MacArthur Fellowship, recipients are given a grant of $625,000 – no strings attached. This means, they can use the grant money any way they want, and yet, the majority of Fellows use the grant to help them to expand the work they were already pursuing.

          • Using the MacArthur Fellows as inspiration, have students consider the question: If you could be paid to do work that you love and that also benefits others, what would you choose to do?
          • Students should explore what career options best fit their “genius” and interview professionals in those fields to learn what path they need to pursue in order to succeed in their chosen field, and what resources and supports they can connect with to help them achieve their goal.
          • Students should document each stage of their project on the class website or in a multimedia blog
        2. Everyday Genius: Recognizing Genius in Our Community

          Students will identify a member of their community who embodies their working definition of “Genius.” Using the MacArthur videos as inspiration, the students will interview their candidate and write a persuasive essay about why this person should be recognized for their skills, creativity, problem solving abilities, and social contributions. This project could take the form of an essay, short film, podcast, or other presentation.


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