In EMPOWER: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning, John Spencer and A.J. Juliani present practical ways to empower students to pursue their passions in school, becoming self-starters, self-directors, self-managers, doers, makers, and problem-solvers. While the book is pitched as empowering students, it also empowers teachers. Spencer and Juliani focus on important shifts to make in curriculum and practices to get educators to a place where this kind of work is not only possible, but where it will flourish. While the book may fall short if you are looking for a direct step-by-step “how-to” guide, EMPOWER presents the reader with an array of customizable options for introducing and launching project-based learning in the classroom; more importantly, it describes how to enact those important mindsets that make project-based learning a possibility. To name a few, Spencer and Juliani discuss how to make the shift from making content interesting to tapping into student interests, from compliance to self-directed learning, and from the mindset of failure as permanence to failing as an essential part of the learning process. The authors themselves state, “There is no instruction manual. We’re all just making it up as we go” (xlvi). And while that may terrify some, I would argue that it is insanely liberating, because it leads to empowered, self-directed, authentic teaching.
The concepts found within EMPOWER are general enough to be applied to any discipline at any grade level. The text is filled with relevant information that deals with the realities of school (standards, set curriculum paths, testing, etc.) and shows that students can still be empowered in the context of these realities. It designed with an engaging layout and is a quick and enjoyable read—perfect for group reads to prompt important conversations. EMPOWER challenges the tired, traditional ways of doing things and is incredibly thought-provoking, inspiring, and motivating, causing you to turn a critical and reflective eye on your own curriculum and practices. I will forever ask myself, “What decisions am I making for my students that they could make for themselves?” (55).