Empowered learners: What a student’s project taught me about education

I co-teach a new, interdisciplinary English III/US history course with my colleague Chris. When we designed this class, we knew our kids needed more than what they were getting to prepare them for a world where critical thinking, problem-solving, computational skills, collaboration, creativity, character, and citizenship are valued far greater than fact knowledge and regurgitation. We knew that research proved that teaching our subject-area content and skills cohesively would be more effective than teaching independently. We knew it would be challenging to create a course that personalizes project-based learning, but we also knew it would be rewarding, and let me tell you: It’s been way more of both challenge and reward than we could have ever imagined. We also knew that we had absolutely no idea where to begin.


Image from Empower by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani (pg. 7).

But it’s amazing what happens when we give kids a voice in their learning. The longer I work with design thinking and PBL, the more I realize that true, meaningful learning doesn’t really happen without giving kids the main voice in it, and their voices — all 60 of them in one room — have been the driving force behind almost every decision we’ve made this year. And for as much as our kids have grown and thrived this year, I have loved becoming a learner again alongside them. They’re teaching me incredible new skills and content through their projects, but their voices and questions and ideas are teaching me even more about myself, both as a person and an educator.

Our very first personalized PBL unit of the year was American History through Education. The kids thought about problems they saw in education and then created essential and supporting questions that they thought might help them arrive at solutions for the individual issue about which they each felt most passionate. They had one-on-one conferences with Chris or I to help them talk through those thoughts and questions. Once they researched and felt they understood that problem deeply and had thought critically about potential solutions, they created a project proposal that investigated the history of the problem, the type of writing/speaking they felt would best help them share their message (informative, persuasive, or narrative), the medium they thought would best help them deliver this message, and an authentic audience with which they should share this message upon completion. After that conference, they were free to start creating their individual projects.

The following video is one of the projects created through that very first unit. Watch what Emily, a junior in our course, developed to encourage educators to allow student voice and develop personalized learning experiences in schools.

For me, this video is both something I celebrate and something that hurts. I celebrate it because I am proud of the way Emily used the design thinking process to develop the concept and product from start to finish. I am proud of how she integrated research and interviews to develop such a strong message in this project. I am proud that she took a challenge posed and conquered it to share an important message with members of ICE and FutureReady as her chosen authentic audience. But it hurts because the faces and voices on that video are my kids. In my classes. And they aren’t the exception to the rule in our schools. If our kids don’t see value in what we’re doing, and if we can’t offer them the pace and challenges suitable for them, we’re going to have a tough time engaging them in learning and empowering them to take the driver’s seat.

Their thoughts weren’t rehearsed or coerced. Emily simply asked them the question, and their responses flowed so easily and naturally. How often are we doing what Emily did, which is asking our students exactly what they need? When we do, how often are we providing for those requests?

And more concerning to me: Why are they waiting to be asked? Why don’t they feel comfortable telling us without being prompted? Are we teaching kids how to advocate for themselves? To see learning as not only their responsibility, but more importantly, also a passion worth fighting for? Why aren’t they telling us — their teachers — what they need from us? Why haven’t we created spaces where that is the norm?

These are questions with which I’ve been grappling all year, and I can see that our course is giving kids those opportunities to discover and explore passions. But it is one course, and it’s not the only course I teach. I have so much more to learn. I have so much more that I want to improve. I’m so glad the experts — my students — are helping me along the way, using their voices to change the narrative of their educations.


8 thoughts on “Empowered learners: What a student’s project taught me about education

  1. Joan Cusano says:

    What an authentic and awesome project for your students! This is a learning experience where students answer and important question of their choosing and communicate their thoughts effectively. Having the opportunity to work closely with colleagues in designing these experiences is critical. This is what schools should be about!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. PMeyer says:

    Love this video…a powerful message for educators! We’re starting down the PBL path with our Grades 5 to 8 now…scary, creative, insanely powerful work, but it’s so worth it. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. hafjeld says:

    What a powerful video! I can definitely understand your mixed reaction to seeing that work. We have an educational system that trains students to comply, rather than to give feedback about how their needs and goals are/are not being met in school. Sounds like the course you are teaching is one step towards change! In my K-6 library I do my best to cultivate student voice and choice—but it’s hard when I only see them once a week. I find that collaborating with others (classroom teachers, in my case) is often the most effective way to innovate, but the trick it to find those willing collaborators.
    Thanks for sharing, I look forward to following your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    • thesecondyearteacher says:

      Thanks, Hannah! Yes, sometimes the biggest hardship is the first one: finding someone who wants to collaborate! Keep at it! Your kids benefit so much from having a library/media specialist working with their other teachers!


  4. Nicky Forest says:

    This is a very powerful story and I especially liked your candid comments about discovering that students in your class were the ones in the video – quite an eye opener. The responses she got and the projects the students did were incredible.

    Liked by 1 person

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