Picture a class of students who are empowered to become scientists, readers, engineers, artists, and whatever else they can dream up. As teachers, guides, and parents, we can empower our children to take ownership of their learning in a way that is authentic and exciting to them. But what does empowerment in a school setting look like? How do we get them there?
First, let’s start by defining what “empowerment” means. Empowerment is the authority or power given to someone to do something. The word “power” really stands out here. Children deserve to have power over their learning. This doesn’t mean a “free for all” learning environment where students don’t have to do anything.
To have power over their learning, students should be given the space to learn how to be independent thinkers, confident communicators, and capable humans.
Empowerment also comes with responsibilities.
Ideally, creating an empowered space involves a caring adult who guides students in things like setting clear goals and exploring interests. Being an empowered learner takes practice, patience, and modeling from a helpful adult. Just as adults need a certain level of autonomy and independence at work, so do young students. Children, similarly, thrive in an empowered school environment. But just saying, “Hey kids. You are empowered learners! Open up those Chromebooks and get started!” isn’t enough. Most kids won’t know WHERE to start if you don’t guide them into independence. Getting them there can be a challenge, but it IS possible and very rewarding!
Here are six ways we can help students become independent, empowered workers:
Which lesson introduction sounds more fun? “Today, we are learning about animals and their habitats.” or “Who wants to be a zoologist?!? Today, you have an opportunity to earn your Zoology Badge. We are going to go on a safari to explore animals and their habitats.” More than likely, the second introduction caught your attention more. We want to spark an interest in students now that may lead to life-long passions. Or, on a more simple level, we want students to love learning. This learning opportunity seems exciting, like an adventure they “get” to do rather than a chore they “have” to do.
As a young student, if I were forced to sit through, say, a class about chemistry, I would have immediately looked for a way out or zoned out. Why? Because, quite honestly, I have zero interest in learning about molecules, ions, and chemical reactions. Alternatively, if I’m given the freedom to choose what I’d like to learn in science, maybe even from a list of options, I’m in! I’m deeply interested in learning about the human body. Because of my interests, I’m more inclined to devote more time, energy, and care to this project. I’m going to scour the library shelves for books that I can read on the topic. I may even want to prepare a presentation to teach my classmates what I’ve learned.
Allowing your students to choose topics of interest is easier to do when you aren’t obligated to follow a specific curriculum and pacing schedule. If you are, using this strategy will prove to be quite difficult. But get creative and see if there are ways to add this in, even as bonus opportunities. Music is a great example!
Another way we can help our students become empowered is by helping them understand how to prioritize their workload. I enjoy showing my students this video explaining how to prioritize responsibilities with big rocks and little rocks. It is a wonderful visual and a video that you can refer to all year long in conversations. If I notice that a student is working on coding on a Thursday and hasn’t completed a math lesson yet that week, I may say, “Take a look at your big rocks and your little rocks this week. Do you think math is a big rock or a little rock?” The student will have to work through what is important to them. Hopefully, they will conclude that their week is almost over and that they better work in math to meet some of their weekly personal goals.
Mistakes… they help us learn! Some students are scared to admit when they don’t know something or “break down” when making mistakes. In an empowered classroom, embracing mistakes and imperfection helps build confidence and trust. We should normalize a growth mindset. We should talk often about the “power of yet”. For example, as a Guide, I might say, “I haven’t learned how to crochet a blanket yet, but I’d like to keep practicing and crochet a blanket by Christmas time.” Another really powerful time that is highly encouraged is a “Struggle and Success” meeting. I liked to do these at the very end of the school day. It is a very casual time, where students are free to share what went well that day and what was hard for them. We celebrate successes and struggles. Model how you deal with “getting things wrong” or fixing mistakes. Model how you don’t have all of the answers, either. Model being human and being a learner!
At Prenda, there are 4 important times throughout our microschool day. They are Connect, Conquer, Collaborate, and Create. It is helpful to have these times displayed on a chart or schedule somewhere for students to see daily. Knowing what is ahead is comforting and familiar. This will help students own the different parts of the day. The first is Connect. This is an important time for social-emotional learning where students share stories, journal, play games, etc., all to build character and a strong class culture. Next, is Conquer time. This is a time when our students are on their Chromebooks, using mastery tools like Lexia, Zearn, Knowre Math, MathSeeds, and more to learn CORE subjects at a level that is right for them.
This is one of my favorite ways to empower students. You can call this time “Process Meeting” or “Student Committee”. Make this time work for you and your students. I would hold this meeting at least once a week and also anytime you see a problem arise. One pain point I noticed for my students happened during Conquer time early on in the school year. Students often get distracted while learning on their chromebooks. Students around the room were having loud, distracting conversations not related to work. This caused other students to get distracted and not finish lessons. Another distraction was frequent movement. So, I raised this question during our Process Meeting: “How do you feel about your ability to focus during Conquer time?” Then, I had students rate themselves.
As I expected, most students voted 1, 2, or 3. This allowed for an important conversation that allowed us to talk about what was happening with the loud conversations and movement. Students made adjustments to our Conquer-time norms, signed their names to the new expectations, and agreed to hold each other accountable the next day. Was it fairytale perfect every time after that? No.. nothing ever is. But this one process meeting was so powerful and incredibly important for students to feel empowered in their learning environment.
We hope that these tips helped, even a little. Don’t try to do this ALL in one day. Our suggestion is to be purposeful in planning and make observations when problems arise so that you can empower students to take control, adjust, succeed, and thrive! For more tips on how to empower students throughout the day, check out 5 Tips to Turn Your Class Into a Community.