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.


Innovating Together: My First Lesson in Co-Teaching #IMMOOC

“My mother always said, ‘If you’re not striving for the ideal, you’re not working hard enough.’”  – Roni Riordan


Image from pixabay

This week in the #IMMOOC, there was a lot of mention of designing the ideal. This fall, I will have the opportunity to move toward my ideal for school. A colleague and I will be teaching a combined English III/American History course that allows students to take control of their learning and choose the way in which they are assessed. When the course was approved, I was ecstatic, but that enthusiasm quickly transformed to panic when I realized I would truly be working with another teacher. Another teacher. In MY classroom. Ehem, I mean, OUR classroom.

At the ICE Conference this morning, Adam Welcome said, “Teaching really isn’t that collaborative.” We ask our kids to collaborate effectively and we preach that this working together is the way of the future. But we don’t do it very well in schools. I realized this myself when my panic set in about sharing the room with another adult — even when it was a colleague I admire.

Chris and I (my future partner in co-teaching) had our first planning meeting last week. There were two main takeaways that I wanted to share this week that might help others take the jump from innovating in a bubble to innovating together.

Be open minded:

In our first meeting, Chris said, “I want to share with you what I already do, but I need you to know that that doesn’t mean I expect to do things the way I have been doing them.” Wow. I consider myself pretty open-minded, but what that did for me was help realign my expectations for myself — that I should expect to change because he was expecting to change and grow, too. Eric Sheninger reminded us in his keynote this morning that “change is the only constant.” I am thrilled to be working with someone whose mindset is focused on being better.

Choose to work with those who challenge you:

I’ve long believed that the most important assessment is a project or product, not a standardized test. Yet, I have still given standardized assessments as part of how I assess students and “prepare them” for the inevitability of “the system.” In our meeting last week, I said that to Chris. His response: “Why?”

I had to think about that. And all my answers were about me. I want my students to score well. I need my kids to be familiar with the types of tests that schools require of them. Did you catch that? I want. I need. It’s about me. Because really, my kids don’t care much about the tests. They care about learning. In the words of Adam Welcome, “The kids should BE the conversation.” My dialogue was focused on the wrong stakeholder, because in the end, the stakeholder that really matters is the child.

“The kids should BE the conversation” – Adam Welcome, #KidsDeserveIt

Co-teaching, interdisciplinary learning, and student-led learning are huge aspects of my ideal, and even though I feel strongly about that, it’s still hard for me to take the leap. But how can I ask my kids to take risks if I’m not willing or enthusiastic to model that for them? It’s about the kids, yes, but it starts with me. And that’s a huge but really important responsibility to follow through on.

My students wanted to make their own final. When I let them, they did more than “exceed standards.”

In late November, my Mass Comm students and I were reviewing the finals schedule. One student asked, “What will our final be in here?” Every kid in the room had a puzzled (and somewhat concerned) face as they waited for me to answer.

I had to admit pretty quickly that I wasn’t sure. The previous year, the students in that class had written a blog post for their final. They had a detailed rubric with lots of writing and tech requirements, and they enjoyed it, but my class this year had already started blogs, and I wasn’t excited about just doing something similar because while we do blog in class, we do a lot more than that. They write the school newspaper, plan professional development on apps for teachers, sell advertising to area businesses, create digital stories, and pretty much take on any project they can find. How could I possibly assess their learning on all of those things in one traditional final?

The truth was that I couldn’t. And the kids knew that just as well (if not better) than I did. One girl raised her hand and asked, “Can we make our own finals and just show you what we’ve learned?” Each student nodded hopefully in agreement.


But we had to do some brainstorming first. I gave the kids five minutes at the end of class to do a group quick list of the things they thought they’d learned in the semester. This is what they came up with together.


These were great ideas but big ideas. I wanted to make sure they could narrow this down to specific things and also be able to show their progress in those areas. We sat together and came up with some requirements, and everyone had a voice in deciding what was important to show, including me. We all agreed that all things informative writing, multimedia, and presentation were important. Creativity was a must.

I wrote up the assignment and shared it with them to make sure I hadn’t missed or misunderstood anything. In it, I also included some hyperlinks so that they would feel challenged to really be creative and try producing something completely new for them.

After we went over the assignment, the kids only had one question: “Can we start now?” They spent the next two class periods (and time at home and in homeroom) working on these projects. I couldn’t believe their enthusiasm, and I got to spend all of my time during class checking in with them, giving feedback on their scripts, helping them self-assess progress with their rubrics, trouble-shooting equipment problems, and learning new apps they planned to use to present. My teaching was truly based on their group or individual needs, and most importantly, I saw their critical thinking in progress, and got to provide feedback on those skills as well as their writing and technology content skills.

The day of the final, there were no nervous faces, and there was no last minute cramming. The kids were so excited to share what they had produced. They supported each other like no other group of kids I’ve seen before, and they gave honest, constructive feedback (based on standards from the rubric) after each presentation. They evaluated themselves using the rubric as well, and their assessments were shockingly accurate. I had never felt more effective as a teacher, and all I had really done was give them the opportunity to choose their own path. They felt empowered to do more, so they did; it’s amazing what can happen when we hear and trust our students.

To my Mass Communications class: Thank you for pushing me to give you more opportunities and for your drive and commitment to make your world a better place. I’ve learned just as much (if not more) from you than you have from me, and your influence will stick with me long after you’ve left this class.

Embrace the new

I constantly hear teachers talk about educational trends as a metaphorical pendulum. It swings back and forth every ten years or so, reintroducing previous ideas rebranded as something new, shiny, and necessary for students’ success.

My tenure in education is not yet a decade deep, so I haven’t experienced the pendulum swing myself, but I do know that when teachers are excited and enthusiastic, kids are more likely to perk up and get involved in their own education as well. Maybe the whole point of rebranding something old is less about introducing something better than before and more about getting people excited again so that they can transmit that energy to students. After all, when you see the same scene over and over again, it gets a little boring, but if you view that scene from a slightly different angle, an entirely different world can emerge.

Sometimes as teachers, though, we fail to see the “entirely different world” because we feel so overwhelmed that we don’t think we have time to look out the window, let alone look outside twice — from two different windows, no less! And when we get overwhelmed, we get a little… negative. While I’ve certainly been guilty of attending (and even hosting) the frustration-with-education pity party, I also know that dialogue gets us nowhere. Here are a few practices that can help minimize the education pendulum whiplash.


See the good before pointing out the bad.

Today I was totally overwhelmed. My calendar is filled with IEP meetings, ELA PD, and testing over the next three weeks, and I need to get evaluated sometime in there. On top of that, I just started three new units with my classes this week, and my Mass Communications students need to finish final drafts of their articles so that we can get the newspaper to print by next Saturday. And that’s just my professional life.

So today after school when I walked into my Future Ready meeting, I was mentally listing all the things I needed to be doing instead. I came in with a negative attitude; it felt like one more thing I needed to do instead of the next great thing I got to do. And yet, we had a productive meeting. I got to sit next to my sister, who is the teacher and person I have always admired most, and when I left, I felt like I had more direction for myself because I was reminded of the vision we have for students. So tonight, I’m excited again about all the busy because all of it boils down to doing better for kids. And that’s my job. Can you imagine how much I could have offered and gotten out of that meeting had I thought of the positive outcomes first?

When presented with a new opportunity to improve student learning, make a promise to yourself that you’re going to find all the good first. My guess is that after listing all the potential positive outcomes, you’ll find that any downfall pales in comparison to the benefits for kids. Immediate excitement will replace temporary negativity.

Be a problem finder, but show up with a solution, too.

If you consistently showed up to a potluck with friends sans dish to pass, do you think you’d continue getting invited? Probably not. Even worse would be showing up with liverwurst every time.

This is what happens when we constantly bring problems to attention without providing any positive, concrete solutions. Pretty soon, we’ll find ourselves without a seat at the table. George Couros (and lots of other really incredible educators) see the obvious value in being a person who can recognize real issues, but problem-finding can quickly equate to complaining if there is no action suggested to resolve the issue.

If you’re going to be a problem-finder, be a problem-solver, too.

Know that you don’t have to know everything to get started with a new practice.

The true beauty of the age we live in is that information is easy to come by. When I was in middle school, if I forgot my textbook at school, I was calling (on my landline phone) to every neighborhood friend begging (read: sobbing) to borrow the book. The book had ALL THE ANSWERS! If I were to pull a textbook out in class now, it would be because all of the power in the universe had been consumed and our Chromebooks were dead. If my students want to use a new app, and I don’t know how to use it, we find a YouTube video or an online tutorial and we figure it out together. If I’m busy helping someone else, sometimes the kids just teach themselves without a resource and then they get me caught up later.

I don’t have to know everything to help my kids learn that they can learn anything they want. And if we really want them to view learning as a lifelong, enjoyable endeavor, it’s best that we don’t pretend to have all the answers.

Develop the lesson for the consumer

Probably the most important thing I have ever done as an educator was ask my students what they wanted. I’ll never forget the first time I did this. I was using a poetry highlighting strategy to analyze “One Face Alone” with a group of Pre-AP 9th graders. We had done it before with other poems, and the kids had responded well, but this time they didn’t seem into it. I stopped and asked them if something was wrong. One very straightforward but sweet girl in the front said, “Mrs. K, I don’t know about them, but I’m tired of doing it this way, and I’m not a huge fan of the strategy we learned yesterday.” When I asked how they’d rather do it instead, they wasted no time coming up with new ways to get to the same outcome: analyzing the poem to be able to write about it. I couldn’t believe how fast they came up with the ideas, but in actuality, they’d probably spent most of their lives in education dreaming of the ways they wished they could learn in school.

As I milled around the room, I saw that they were all working in different ways but coming to many of the same conclusions about the poem, and I got to spend time working with kids instead of asking questions from the board. It wasn’t my idea, but it was better.

I’ve never forgotten that day, and so whenever a new idea in education arises, before I think about how it affects me, I think about how it affects the consumers: the kids. If it would benefit them — prepare them better for the world in which they’re going to be leaders — I’m trying it as soon as is humanly possible. And I’m sharing the why with the kids so that they see it as the new, exciting opportunity that it is.