Student Engagement

5 Ways to Empower Students

Giving them a voice in their own education.

February 8, 2012

What's the most powerful resource in your classroom? Is it the formidable stack of textbooks, the encyclopedia, the computer? As much of a reader and education technology enthusiast as I am, I believe this most powerful resource is something else entirely. It's something collective -- the diverse imaginations, observations, opinions, hopes and dreams of students. By empowering students, you can engage them further in learning, provide a more democratic learning experience and, of course, find the most powerful resource in your classroom: us.

1) Give Your Students a Voice Through Forums for Student Feedback

You may remember from your own school days how much students sometimes complain about teachers ("she gives so much busywork," "he gave me a D just because I turned it in a day late!"). Now that's only amplified through social networking. What if you could use that to your advantage? I'm both a teacher and a student. I receive a lot of feedback from teachers for class work and homework, and I also really appreciate getting constructive feedback from the students I teach via video conferencing. Setting up a forum for students to provide constructive and timely feedback -- criticism or praise -- through mediums like a group Google Doc, Twitter hashtag, Edmodo site, blog, etc., helps you improve your teaching. It also helps students, emphasizing that learning is about partnership and working together.

2) Give Students Decision-Making Power in an Area of Curriculum

This might seem like an unrealistic idea in an age of common core standards and high-stakes tests -- what if students veer drastically off the required course? However, this is actually entirely possible to incorporate with existing curriculum. For instance, if you teach language arts and the goal of the unit is teaching students how to write an effective response to literature or a literary analysis essay, who says everyone has to write about the same book written by some ancient dead writer (no offense, dead writers)? Besides, if you're already scared of writing your very first response to literature, having to decipher ancient syntax isn't going to help. So instead, why not have students pick a book of their own choosing -- a novel like The Hunger Games, even (gasp!) a graphic novel like Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, or even (double gasp!) a smart comic book like Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes? All these works provide plenty of themes to analyze and are compelling reads. You could turn this response to literature unit into a book club unit where students make cases for picking their suggested book to be read and analyzed by the rest of the class. This student-directed curriculum idea is applicable to many other subjects. Giving students the power to choose creates a sense of ownership over the learning.

3) Put Yourself in the Sandbox

Jump in to work with students. When I teach language arts, I love using collaborative writing to explain concepts like figurative language or to demonstrate how to start writing different types of pieces (like an essay or a suspenseful personal narrative). I ask for student involvement and feedback; they throw out the ideas while I link them together. The best part is that this helps provide a crucial link between the explanation of the topic and the "Go do this at home and turn it in" moment. By getting students to collaborate with you, they're starting to work on their own but also getting the concept reinforced.

4) Encourage Meaningful Technology Use in the Classroom

Many teachers tell students to turn off their devices when they walk into the classroom. However, it can be incredibly empowering to do just the opposite. By having your students bring their own devices, you open up a world of new learning opportunities (like the flipped classroom model, web quests, podcasts, virtual field trips via Skype, livestreaming with classes across the world, etc.), and you reaffirm that learning can happen anytime, anywhere. When students use their devices during class time to access learning resources that they can also get at home or on the go, we see that learning doesn't just happen within the four walls of a classroom. Plus, it literally puts learning power in our hands. I know some teachers who have expressed concerns about rolling out any kind of technology they themselves didn't know how to use that well. However, if that's the case, don't be scared to let your students teach you a thing or two about technology. If you're worried about students slacking off on digital devices, it's worth checking out the #pencilchat discussion.

5) Involve Students in "Real" Issues

A big complaint a lot of students have about what we learn in class is that it doesn't seem applicable to the real world. Have students practice skills they've learned or topics they've come to understand in service learning, debates, leadership/volunteerism/community service, or by having opinions on "real" issues like education reform or the 2012 election (shriek! politics! you might think, but as long as you stay objective, the students are civil to each other and parents are okay, politics can be one of the most energizing topics there is for students). Have your students make a difference with what they've learned, and they'll be more motivated to learn further -- because they're seeing that it's having an impact. They're learning to help others instead of just working toward some lofty, seemingly distant goal of graduating and going to college.

Ultimately, empowering students is about a realization: teachers and students have a lot to learn from each other. After all, as the pioneering American librarian John Cotton Dana once said, "Who dares to teach must never cease to learn." Empowering students helps us all do just that.

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