By Patti Drapeau, author of Inspiring Student Empowerment: Moving Beyond Engagement, Refining Differentiation
Remember when we all looked forward to going back to school? We actually mourned the loss of the summer, and we looked forward to the new school year and the promise of a new group of students. There was always an excitement about the return to school; however, this year is different from all other years. We are anxious about what the new normal will look like and how we will navigate the waters. We may be feeling stressed, maybe even overwhelmed. As an educator, you are not alone. It is likely your students feel the same way.
From students’ perspective, they may have experienced frustration, disillusionment, and disappointment about learning online and not seeing their friends. Some have had to endure less-than-desirable home environments where they have had to fend for themselves. Now, with the new school year on the horizon, students, too, are realizing that their hope of returning to normalcy is not going to happen.
Right now, students need an approach to learning that will validate their opinions, ignite their commitment to learning, and help them feel that they can accomplish their learning goals. Students need a can-do attitude. They need to feel uplifted.
Student empowerment is one way to accomplish this. When students are empowered, they are excited, enthusiastic, and energized because they believe that what they are doing matters. How do we know what empowers students? The obvious answer is to ask them. In a survey of high schoolers, students were asked what empowered them. They responded that they like the ability to choose. They feel empowered when they are independent. Students also said that they feel empowered when teachers are passionate about what students are doing. If you talk about what empowerment means and provide examples of what empowers you, your students will be better able to tell you what empowers them.
Students say they feel empowered when they know that teachers care about them. When teachers know their students’ hopes and dreams, students know their teachers care. Do you know your students’ goals and aspirations? There are many surveys about student strengths and preferences that can help you ascertain information about what your students like. Since not all surveys are alike, find or modify one that gives you the information you’re looking for. Some surveys include questions about whether students like to learn facts and details or if they prefer to learn about issues and problems. Other surveys ask students whether they like to think about unusual ideas and different ways of doing things or prefer to analyze and evaluate information. Do you know if your students prefer to work alone, with a partner, or with a group?
Teachers empower students when they give them choices. You can give your students choice in a variety of ways. You can give them choices about topics or subtopics they want to learn about. You can give them choices about how they prefer to think about what they know. For example, you can ask students to describe the main character in a story or to compare the main character to themselves. Each prompt directs students to think about the main character, but one asks for a description while the other asks for a comparison. You can ask students to choose between different product forms, such as to sharing their responses in a discussion, a reading response journal, or a recording. Offering choices is a great way to empower students, but you also want them to make good, logical choices, not impulsive, emotional ones. Before students make a choice, make sure they know how they learn best and to what degree they need to learn content. If students know their own interests and strengths, they can make better decisions.
According to Russell Quaglia, “When students have voice, they are seven times more likely to be motivated to learn and four times more likely to experience self-worth in school” (Namahoe, 2017). Student voice is an important tool for communication and student leadership. Teachers encourage student voice when they ask students for their opinions, point of view, suggestions, and thoughts. You empower students when you communicate with them and when you encourage them to use their voice.
Empowerment depends upon on the relationship between the teacher and the student. The two form a team, and both assume the attitude that we are in this together. When students feel this sense of commitment from the teacher, they feel empowered. The teacher works with the students rather than imposing instruction on the students. The students begin to feel more in control of their own learning. You can empower your students by making connections with them, respecting them, and building a relationship with them.
When we empower students, we reduce their dependency on the teacher and increase their independence. Encourage your students to become active participants in the learning process by involving them in voice, choice, and logical decision-making. Remember, your students may be hesitant about returning to school in whatever format your school has chosen—face-to-face, hybrid, or online. Independence helps them feel confident and capable of accomplishing learning tasks in a variety of learning environments.
Here’s a letter to your students that you could use at the start of school. The intent of the letter is to reassure students that this year may be different, but different does not have to be bad. Inspire your students by making it known that you intend to be there for them. Feel free to personalize the letter to fit your situation.
This spring was different from all other springs. The COVID-19 virus changed our learning situation and our home lives in many ways. Now, as we return to school this fall, our learning routines remain anything but routine.
I’m writing this letter to let you know that there will be changes in the way we do things this year, and it is okay. I am here to help you navigate the waters as we all struggle to learn in different, and maybe even difficult, situations.
First, here is what I need from you: I need you to pay attention to what you are learning and share your thoughts with me. Is the information interesting? Or are you doing your work just to get it done? I need you to tell me how you feel about what you are learning. Are you curious about the topic? Are you excited about it? Are you inspired to learn more?
Finally, I want you to tell me what you need to feel more comfortable in your learning situation. Do you need more help? Can I offer you more choice? Are you having difficulty making connections between what you are learning and why you are learning it?
Here is what I promise you: I promise to listen to what you are saying. I promise to try my best to understand your feelings. I promise to do everything I can to change a situation or make adjustments so that your learning needs are met. I am not perfect, but I promise to do all I can to help you. I want you to feel empowered and energized.
Let’s make a pact. Let’s make this year the year of the empowered you. Let’s make this year a great year, together.
Bonus! Click here to download a free student empowerment questionnaire.
References and Resources
Drapeau, Patti. Inspiring Student Empowerment: Moving Beyond Engagement, Refining Differentiation. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 2020.
Namahoe, Kanoe. “Cultivating Student Voice.” SmartBrief, March 25, 2017. smartbrief.com/original/2017/03/cultivating-student-voice.
Quaglia, Russell J., and Michael J. Corso. Student Voice: The Instrument of Change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2014.
Patti Drapeau (pattidrapeau.com) is an internationally active educational consultant, author, and presenter, with more than 25 years of classroom experience. Patti conducts keynote sessions as well as short- and long-term workshops in the United States and abroad. She commonly presents on the following topics: differentiation, creativity, engagement, gifted education, student empowerment, and personalized learning.
Patti is the founder of Patti Drapeau Educational Consulting Services and has received the New England Region Gifted and Talented award for outstanding contributions in gifted education and the Maine Educators of the Gifted and Talented award for exemplary service. Patti coached programs such as Odyssey of the Mind, Future Problem Solving, Explorer Vision, and math teams. She also developed a curriculum model for the regular classroom called “Affective Perspectives: Combining Critical Thinking, Creative Thinking, and Affect,” and authored a variety of articles for the Maine Exchange, Teaching Matters, and Understanding Our Gifted. Her other books include Sparking Student Creativity: Practical Ways to Promote Innovative Thinking and Problem Solving, Differentiating with Graphic Organizers: Tools to Foster Critical and Creative Thinking, Differentiated Instruction: Making It Work, and Great Teaching with Graphic Organizers.
Patti currently works as a consultant and she is a part-time faculty member at the University of Southern Maine. She lives in Freeport, Maine.
Patti is the author of Inspiring Student Empowerment: Moving Beyond Engagement, Refining Differentiation.
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