5 Ways to Empower Students
Which of your classroom’s resources do you consider to be the most useful? Is it the intimidating mountain of books, the encyclopaedia, or the computer? Even though I spend a lot of time reading and am very interested in educational technology, I believe that the most useful resource is something entirely different. It is something that all of the students contribute to together, including their unique imaginations, observations, opinions, hopes, and dreams. You can further engage students in the learning process, provide a more democratic learning environment, and, of course, find the most powerful resource in your classroom, which is us. Empowering students allows you to do all of these things.
1) Give Your Students a Voice Through Forums for Student Feedback
You may recall from your own time spent in school how frequently students complain about their teachers (“she assigns so much busywork,” “he gave me a D just because I turned it in a day late!”). This is only made worse by the prevalence of social networking sites. What if you were able to turn that into an asset for yourself? I am in the role of both a teacher and a learner here. I get a lot of feedback from teachers on my classwork and homework, and I also really appreciate getting constructive feedback from the students I teach via video conferencing. I get a lot of feedback from teachers on my classwork and homework. Helping your students provide feedback that is both constructive and timely, whether in the form of criticism or praise, through platforms such as a group Google Doc, a Twitter hashtag, an Edmodo site, a blog, etc., is an effective way to improve your own teaching methods. In addition, it is beneficial to students because it stresses the importance of collaboration and partnership in the educational process.
2) Give Students Decision-Making Power in an Area of Curriculum
In this day and age of high-stakes tests and common core standards, it’s possible that the concept of this being realistic won’t make much sense. What if students veer off the required path in a significant way? In spite of this, it is entirely feasible to incorporate this into the curriculum that is already in place. For example, if you teach language arts and the objective of the unit is to instruct students in how to write an effective response to literature or a literary analysis essay, who says that every student needs to write about the same book written by some ancient dead author (no offence intended to dead writers)? In addition, if writing your very first response to a piece of literature already makes you nervous, having to decipher ancient syntax is not going to make things easier for you. Why not, as an alternative, give students the option to select a book of their own choosing, such as a novel like “The Hunger Games,” even (gasp!) a graphic novel like “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi, or even (double gasp!) an intelligent comic book like “Calvin and Hobbes” by Bill Watterson? All of these works contain a wealth of concepts that can be dissected and analysed, and they make for captivating reading. You could transform this unit on responding to literature into a book club unit, in which students argue for the selection of their chosen book as the one that will be read and discussed by the rest of the class. This concept of a student-directed curriculum can be applied to a wide variety of different fields of study. Students develop a sense of ownership over their learning when they are given the opportunity to make choices.
3) Put Yourself in the Sandbox
Immediately begin to collaborate with the students. When I’m teaching language arts, one of my favourite activities to do is to have students write together in order to discuss topics like figurative language or to demonstrate how to begin writing a variety of different types of pieces (like an essay or a suspenseful personal narrative). I solicit the participation and feedback of the students; they provide the ideas, and it is my job to connect the dots between them. The most positive aspect of this is that it helps to provide a crucial link between the explanation of the topic and the moment when you are told to “Go do this at home and turn it in.” When you have students work together with you on a project, not only do they begin to work independently, but they also have the concept reinforced.
4) Encourage Meaningful Technology Use in the Classroom
When students enter the classroom, a lot of teachers tell them to turn off their phones or other electronic devices. On the other hand, doing the complete opposite can be a very empowering experience. You can give your students access to a world of new learning opportunities (such as the flipped classroom model, web quests, podcasts, virtual field trips via Skype, livestreaming with classes all over the world, etc.) by requiring them to bring their own electronic devices to class. You can also reaffirm the notion that learning can take place at any time and in any place. We see that learning doesn’t just take place within the confines of a classroom when students use their personal electronic devices during school hours to access online educational resources that they also have access to at home or while they are travelling. In addition to this, the power of learning is literally placed in our hands. There are a number of educators that I am familiar with who have voiced concerns regarding the implementation of any kind of technology that they themselves are not proficient in using. However, if this is the case, don’t be afraid to let your students instruct you on some technological nuances; they likely know more than you do. Check out the conversation taking place on #pencilchat if you’re concerned about the amount of time that students spend procrastinating on their digital devices.
5) Involve Students in “Real” Issues
A significant number of my fellow pupils have the opinion that the information we are taught in school does not appear to have any relevance to the outside world. Have students practise the skills they’ve learned or the topics they’ve come to understand through service learning, debates, leadership/volunteerism/community service, or by having opinions on “real” issues like education reform or the 2012 election (you might be thinking, “shriek! politics!” but as long as you stay objective, the students are civil to each other, and the parents are okay, politics can be one of the most energising topics there is for students). If you give your students the opportunity to put what they’ve learned into practise, they’ll be more motivated to continue their education because they’ll see that what they’re learning is making a difference in the world. They are not just working toward some lofty, seemingly distant goal of graduating high school and going to college; rather, they are learning to help others along the way.
In the end, empowering students is about coming to terms with the fact that both teachers and students have a great deal to gain from one another. After all, “Whoever dares to teach must never cease to learn,” was the advice given by John Cotton Dana, an early 20th-century American librarian who was a pioneer in the field. Empowering students helps us all do just that.