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5 Ways to Empower Students

Adora Svitak

Student, Teacher (language arts, via video conferencing), Author, Speaker
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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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Adora Svitak

Student, Teacher (language arts, via video conferencing), Author, Speaker

Comments (14) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

abrown40's picture
Special Education Teacher

Empowering students is so important. I am a big believer in students feeling empowered and playing a part in their learning. Number 5 is awesome! I really believe that making connections for the student is so important. Students want to know how does this relate to me? When children can make connections, and make this real life students tend to become more engaged.

kellyA's picture

Recently I have started to include activities in my math class that deal with math in the real world. For example my 7th graders are working on mean. median, mode so for there activity on Monday they had to find mean, median, mode of the past super bowl scores. They really enjoyed the activity and didn't realize they were working and learning! :)

felibur's picture

I think these are great ideas to give students a voice in the classroom. If students feel they are valued and are important, it may show through their schoolwork and attitudes towards other students. Relating whatever we are teaching to the real world makes the idea stick. Students are more likely to hold knowledge longer if they see how it relates to them and their lives.

Pedro Alejandro's picture
Pedro Alejandro
Eight grade Spanish & ESL teacher

After teaching the grammar, I design a real setting in my classroom, for instance when we study the Verbs: like and want with food vocabulary, I set a restaurant in my classroom, I put table cloth on the desks, I make a color menu, students role play costumers and waiters, they create a conversation with the target topic. Last activity I did was the TV show "who wants to be millonaire" the students really enjoyed this activity.

Tonya King's picture
Tonya King
Graduate Student, Norfolk, Virginia

I am currently working towards receiving my Masters in Education. I have not begun teaching in the classroom, but when that time arrives I will definitely use these strategies to empower my students. Students need to be empowered to manage more of their own learning. They need to be self- directed. I believe this will encourage them to be life long learners. There definitely needs to be a shift of control from the teacher managing learning (creating dependent learners by the way) to a culture of students being inter-dependent while they are globally connected and contributing content, tutorials, to the whole classroom. P.S. #1 is my favorite! : )

Adora Svitak's picture
Adora Svitak
Student, Teacher (language arts, via video conferencing), Author, Speaker

Love this perspective! Thank you so much for commenting and adding your experience. When I wrote this piece, I was thinking more of my peers and my high school experience, but I love the fact that you've applied these tips to your classroom. Definitely if students feel that they are being empowered early on it can build appreciation and love for learning. Another thing I might add was that when I was a little younger I really loved group games where we (the students) felt powerful--for instance, when we were learning about post-Revolutionary War history and we got to organize on two teams, Federalist and Antifederalist, and argue back and forth about the pros and cons of both parties just like the Founding Fathers might have :) Anything that gives students power, that makes an abstract concept "come alive," or that relates learning to real-world application (as you did with the measurement and business letter activities), is always excellent. Thanks for your input!

Alina Dougherty's picture
Alina Dougherty
Math 7 Norfolk VA

I love the ideas of offering students timely opportunities to provide feedback, creating an atmosphere where students are an active part of the decsion making model, collaboration, and meaningful activities but technology integration peeked my interest and the #pencilchat link. I am a proponent of integrating personal technology in the classroom, but am concerned with maintaining both equality and equity. To engage the pencil analogy, when adding new technology (pencils or cell phones) there is a critical mass that needs to be acheived in order for the new technology to be effective. One or two pencils in a classroom is just not enough; are cell phones, itouches, laptops any different? I provide maybe 10 pencils to student on a non-testing day and countless times that number when a #2 pencil vs any writting instrument is required. I can't count on my students to bring even the most basic technology for themselves and even with return procedures in place many of them leave the classroom or are broken (intentionally or not) before they are returned. Maybe students would be more self motivated to bring their own technology (there are some great ideas in Lisa Nielsn and Willyn Webbs book "Teaching Generation Text" IBSN978-1-118-07687(pbk)), but I am leary. I worry about off task behavior and how to monitor it as well as issues of haves and have nots. This Friday I plan to give a brief technology inventory to all my 7th graders in an effort to get feedback, buy-in and collaboration regarding how we can implement some of the ideas in "Teaching Generation Text". Wish me luck! :)

Robben Wainer's picture
Robben Wainer
Volunteer Librarian for amilto Grange NYPL


The story book is still the most powerful conceptual tool I use for reinforcing perceptions and perspectives in my classwork on development. I teach that the inferences and implications that we derive from learning by constructing themes are relevant to our findings based on research. I also teach that ELA is more complete then understanding a conceptual style or mood. The artistic genius or pleasure that forms our inclusion of self affirmations begins in the ELA class, as we begin to place our lives in perspective with the world we live in, and are familiar with, in reference to cultural diversity, heritage, and within our environment.

ousmane's picture
5th , 6th and 7th grade teacher

I think you cannot teach out of the blue.Therefore , their should always be a real life situation (eveything that can motivate from realia , contextualization ,body laguage and so )in our everyday teaching .It is a sure fire way to get students involved in the learning process.If we accept sometimes to level down ourselves to our students, they feel confident and trust us in what we are trying to get across as message to them.So let us wake this child lying dormant in us for the benefit of our students everywhere around the world.

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