I was asked this week about some ways to empower students. It seemed pretty simple at first, but upon reflection, I wondered if some of the traditional ways truly impact the learning environment and empower students they way we hope they would. There are countless ways to give students a voice in the classroom and on the campus, but some thoughts I had on how students could impact themselves and future students is by getting them involved in the teaching and learning on the campus.
Great teachers empower students. Period. They do it in a variety of ways, and sometimes they can’t even describe how they did it, but great teachers and great schools empower students to own their own learning. This is the essences of empowerment.
The students of 2020 have perhaps the greatest experience in schools in history when compared to any previous generation. The resources, thanks to technology, are almost limitless, and the emphasis on student-choice and social emotional learning have created classrooms and schools that are designed to engage students and make the learning experience meaningful to each individual child. Is it working? Yes and No. There is no doubt that many classrooms around the nation have transformed from the traditional rows of desks and teacher lectures to a more inviting learning environment of flexible seating and student choice, but is it having a real impact on student learning? Have the lessons and tasks really changed or have we just made the kids more comfortable?
I believe one of the best places to look for true empowerment of students is to solicit their feedback and reflections after the lessons have taken place. As educators, we often spend precious hours of planning time to try and create lesson choices that will entice students and stimulate their minds so they will be interested and engaged. Think about how much time could be saved if we had a few students around the table joining the teachers in a PLC to give feedback on previous lessons and input on upcoming units. Give your students, not just your top students, but the struggling ones as well, as chance to give you feedback on the tasks in your classroom or even your teaching style. And here is a little secret, students do not hold back near as well as adults do. You want to know the truth, ask a kid.
As educators, formative assessment is something that is stressed at every level as the best way to monitor student progress, but what if we truly empowered students to formatively assess our curriculum and instruction? We might not want to hear what they have to say! As a middle school principal, I once had a group of students tell me, “If you want to LEARN you take this teacher, but if you want to have FUN you take this one.” Originally, I was baffled by their candid answer, but I have used that example many times over years to make the point that “Kids Know”. They know who pushes them and who lets them slide. They know when they can turn in less than their best effort and when they must do their best. If we want to get better, we should give them a seat at the table and make them a part of professional collaboration. How in the world could that happen? In a few easy steps:
1. Individually- Create a system in your classroom where students give you regular feedback on your teaching and the tasks you assign them (you may or may not have control over the tasks you give). If you keep a reflective learning journal, this is a great place to take notes to formatively improve the next lesson or change the task for next year.
2. Campus or PLC- Invite a small, but diverse group of students to your grade level/department PLC. Don’t put them on a stage as a panel, which is often fake and kids see through fake, but instead give them an equal seat at the table. You might have to train them a bit so they realize what lesson planning and curriculum mapping is all about, but they will catch on quickly. Don’t do it a once. Commit to making the group a regular part of the discussion for at least a six to nine-week grading period. If they are with your PLC that long, they should experience lesson design, reflection of lessons/units, data dives, etc. Basically, a full learning cycle. After that, switch to a different group.
3. District- A larger commitment might be to invite a group of students that just completed an entire course to be part of a district level curriculum writing team. Who better to share what was good and bad about Algebra than the students that just completed the course? Think of the power of hearing about the same lesson from three or four kids from different schools. It has the potential to help with curriculum alignment and calibration.
I have five kids spanning from a kindergarten student to a junior in high school and everyone of them will tell you what they liked about school and what they didn’t. When pressed, the older ones will tell you what lessons were challenging and which ones were “busy” work. They will tell you what they remember from several years ago and what lessons had the biggest impact on their learning. KIDS KNOW.
Imagine the impact over time on the learning environment if we spent more time letting the kids help us design the lessons? It is a different paradigm then simply differentiating a lesson and letting kids have “student choice” over a few activities all designed by adults. Its challenging but it is a way to truly have students own their learning in a way that adults cannot. Be bold and give it a try!