Classroom Reflections After Reading Empower

Innovation has become a bit of a buzz word in education, and while the term may be trendy and even over- and misused, innovation is crucial to the survival of relevant and effective education. But change cannot be carried out for the sake of change; rather, as John Spencer and A.J. Juliani put it in Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning, innovation must be “driven by a sense of purpose and meaning” (95).

Educators should be, by nature, innovators in the classroom—constantly seeking out and consuming professional literature. The core of my teaching philosophy is to remain, myself, in a constant state of learning. Roughly two years ago now, I stumbled across the idea of genius hour in a text, mentioned really just in passing, and I followed the thread of interest that first lead me to A.J. Juliani and other genius hour and PBL educators. This one event, which occurred by happenstance, irrevocably altered both my curriculum and my teaching methods. So making an intellectual feast of Empower feels a bit like coming full circle.

Because I’m already a convert of project-based curriculum, Spencer and Juliani were preaching to the proverbial choir; but, even so, there were important elements that caused me to turn a reflective and scrutinizing eye to my own curriculum and practices.

Spencer and Juliani talk about making “shifts” in your classroom, small but fundamental changes in your curriculum and teaching methods. Spencer writes about his first venture into project-based learning, which, while a messy process with bumps in the road, revealed to him the “secret ingredient” for empowering students and transforming them into makers: FREEDOM. He spent the entirety of the following summer analyzing and revising all parts of his classroom under the guide of a single driving question: “What decisions am I making for students that they could make for themselves?” (55).

Of all the material in this text, this one question hit me with the full force of a train barreling down the tracks. I kept reading, but this question kept clawing its way back to the forefront of my mind. All this time I had been looking at my passion project as the ultimate embodiment of student choice, but in that moment my mind raced through the entire process of the passion project—all the ways in which I was still placing so many unnecessary requirements and limitations on students—and I realized just how many decisions I’m still making for them.

Now, I’ll stop here to say that I do think there are some benefits to having guidelines, requirements, restrictions, limitations (whatever terminology you prefer) placed on students and the work they do in the classroom. I feel likewise about deadlines. My reasoning here, though, isn’t curriculum- or standard-driven, nor is it for the sake of grading. Instead, it’s as simple as this: the idea of project-based learning is to, in many way, replicate the real work students will do once they leave public schooling. In the real world, where real writing and real projects happen in real contexts, people are more often than not given freedom/choice within a set of real guidelines/requirements/restrictions/limitations/etc. that must be met by real deadlines. And if my true purpose is to bring real work and real context into the classroom, I have to bring the other realities along with it. Have some guidelines and deadlines do not negate freedom and choice, I would argue, but simply help to structure work and provide students with a sense of a time line and of urgency. The two worlds can be reconciled.

So it is with the idea of freedom/choice in the context of real guidelines and deadlines that I move forward, asking myself: how can I expand student choice and freedom? To answer that question, I had to look back over the guidelines I set for the passion project to identify which ones I could lift to inspire more authentic and passionate projects.

The main element that stood at the forefront (and the one that came up over and over again in student feedback) was the research essay. Here I was providing the opportunity for students to delve into something they were uniquely passionate about, but tacking on this dense and worn out traditional research essay as a secondary product. And while all the primary products were incredible and impressive examples of student work, the essays were awful. Even the best ones were painful to slog through—not even because they were poorly written, but because they were flat and lifeless and written with zero passion or interest behind the writing. They were products of obligatory (and half-hearted) participation.

So I’m cutting it. I’m no longer requiring students to write the traditional research essay to “prove” they learned something over the course of the project cycle. In fact, I’m not even requiring that they write anything as a product. Instead, they will have full choice over what they create for the product: a prototype or object of some kind, art or other creative work, an event they plan and host, an extended experience they seek out for themselves, even some form of writing—whatever they feel driven to make.

I still plan on having students develop websites to act as a sort of platform on which to do some of the work of the project, but also to ultimately archive the project on a public platform. Even so, I’m making some changes within the website to accommodate for additional student choice and freedom. I’m working to make the system of the passion project more adjustable and flexible to better meet the needs of all my students and their self-directed pursuits (yet another piece of advice prevalent in Spencer’s and Juliani’s Empower).

I’m curious to know: what changes can you make in your own curriculum and practices to increase student choice and freedom? Share your ideas!

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