Amanda Williams-Yeagers is a Librarian Glitterarian who works at John T Tuck Public School in Burlington.  We asked her what it means to be empowered as a learner and she turned around and wrote a guest blog on the topic.

Empowerment. This word is being talked about more and more in the world of education.  John Spencer, talks about the shift from compliance to engagement to empowerment- where students are in charge of how they learn.  When I think about how big that word really is, I feel two things: excited and overwhelmed.
Excited at the possibilities of where education in the 21st century is headed, and overwhelmed at the challenges faced by educators in order to get our students to that place where they feel “empowered.”  When I think about what “empower” means to me, I think about students engaging in self-directed learning; those moments where the curriculum is there, but there is a certain magic that is happening because students are in charge of what they are doing.  They have chosen a topic of interest, a way to represent their thinking, and they have come up with a solution to one of the world’s problems. Maybe even a solution we haven’t thought of yet.  Students feel empowered because teachers are no longer the gate-keepers of knowledge, but rather the facilitator or guide along for the ride on a very exciting journey.

A grade 5 student shares her self- directed prototype of a tunnel to withstand earthquakes in Seattle.

In writing this blog post, I decided to consult some of the many people within Halton and beyond who inspire me. The more I talked to people, the more I built on that feeling of excitement!  I began by asking students and teachers in Halton about what empowerment means to them. A grade eight student at my school told me that:

Being a student who’s empowered means confidence, and knowing there’s a place for you where you don’t have to stress or worry because if you’re empowered at school, you can be empowered anywhere.  Being empowered at school means having a voice and being able to speak up for what you believe in.”  

This was incredible insight for a thirteen year old, but what really resonated with me was that she identified feeling empowered at school meant that she could be empowered anywhere.   I thought about how significant our role as educators is in preparing kids for their lives outside of school.  Have we considered the ripple effect of student choice and voice in their education?

Some educators I spoke to about empowerment described “creating a passion within them to find any means to further their curiosity of learning...” while others described “motivating others to achieve their own personal greatness.”  Some educators believed that the journey of empowering students was parallel to their own empowerment as educators.  Almost all of the people I spoke to discussed building capacity and a willingness to take risks as a necessary part of the journey. There are so many educators around us who are encouraging our students to take risks and empowering our students.

A “wonder wall" documenting one of the learning journeys taken by Emily Horner’s grade 6 class
Emily Horner, a grade six teacher at PL Robertson, empowers students by making their thinking visible and engaging them in knowledge building through big ideas as part of their daily practice.  The students document their questions on the “Wonder Wall” and extend their understanding through their own investigations. The way their learning journey is captured is incredible!  
Christine Vanderwal, a grade 7 teacher at Hawthorne Village Public School empowers students by focusing on the idea that everyone has a story.  By supporting the value of the individual within the class community, and an emphasis on Truth and Reconciliation, students feel that everyone has a voice, and that everyone is valued. Not only does Christine give students a chance to demonstrate their understanding in a variety of ways, she gives students opportunities like “Genius Hour,” so that students learn about their interests, and how they can best represent their ideas.  Christine’s self-reflection as an educator fuels her journey to inspire and empower her students.

Everyone has a story in Christine Vanderwal’s grade 7 class, leaving each student feeling valued and empowered. 

Perhaps one of the most influential people I spoke to was Peter Skillen, author of The Construction Zone blog. Peter agrees that we should be engaging students in their areas of interest, giving students choices, engaging them in their preferred learning style, and engaging them in the assessment process. He argues that while these are all part of the empowerment process, he says that we need a more holistic approach.  He questions whether educators who desire students to be “21st century learners” are 21st century learners themselves.  And perhaps his most poignant ongoing statement is that he feels we need to “educate, not subjugate.” Perhaps we as educators need to shift our beliefs about students as empty vessels that we need to fill up, to the idea that they are naturally curious and capable of complex thinking.
All of this investigation, while valuable, has led me to that other feeling I mentioned- the unmistakable feeling of being overwhelmed.  We all want to be the best educators that we can be.  There are so many resources, theories, PD sessions, and conferences available to us.  And that’s when I realized that the best way to dissect any of this is to talk to colleagues. Sometimes, I think it’s so easy to get lost in the shuffle of “best practice” or “best resource” or even just the “daily grind” with our students, that we miss the collaborative piece with our peers that can make us better.

Last summer I stumbled upon John Spencer and A.J. Juliani’s book, “Empower.”  I liked how easy it was to read, that the authors gave personal examples and that they were encouraging educators to make mistakes. (All too often we forget to give ourselves permission to get it wrong!)  I wanted the chance to talk to other people about this book - what it was about, and how we could change things for our students, without fear of getting it wrong or making mistakes.  I wanted different perspectives from high school and elementary.  The more voices, the more valuable the conversation would be. I wanted the chance for us to learn from each other’s experiences.

And that is how the HDSB Empower Book Study came to be. It’s not too late to join the discussion. We meet virtually every Thursday night from 8-9 pm. You can connect via our website or email me (williamsyea@hdsb.ca) if you have any questions.  

John Spencer says that “When students learn to make sense of their world, they become the people who will transform it.” If that’s not reason enough to empower our kids, I don’t know what is.

~ Amanda Williams-Yeagers