Immediately upon finishing LAUNCH by John Spencer & AJ Juliani, I knew I wanted to read their second book, Empower, as quickly as possible. Finally, I was able to find time to read it and I was not disappointed. Some sequels start out where the first left off, but Empower doesn’t simply pick up where LAUNCH left off; it adds a whole new layer of aspirations for our students.
LAUNCH taught us to engage students in design thinking and how to relate this student-centered design thinking process to every content area. Empower shows us how to shift our thinking from student-centered to student-owned.
From the foreword from George Couros (author of The Innovator’s Mindset and co-owner of IMpress with his wife, Paige and Dave & Shelley Burgess) to the invitation to innovation on the final page, this book was a powerful read. John & AJ share why it is not enough to simply shift the educational environment from compliance to engagement. We must extend this vitally important shift for students to empowerment. Students should not be answering our questions, but asking their own questions and then seeking to find the answers. If we want lifelong learners (and I genuinely hope that is the quest for all educators), we need to help students take those reins. It’s not enough to tell them we want them to set goals for themselves, we should give them the freedom to actually set them.
There are many moments in this book that I felt a mic drop from John & AJ. One moment that I felt a mic drop was when AJ and John share the shift from ‘making the subject interesting to tapping into student interests’. I love AJ’s story about Mr. Flynn and how Mr. Flynn’s interest in AJ ultimately pulled out the maker in him by empowering him through a programming class. The rap created by AJ & veteran teacher Jen Smith further illustrates the difference between making a subject interesting and tapping into students’ interests.
The description of the tourist teacher was a perfect description of me teaching in my early years. I was driving the bus and the kids were along for the ride. If the students found something they were interested in and wanted more information, I had to keep going so we’d stay on topic and on time, according to my schedule. While I understand that there is content that must be taught and time constrictions to teach it, we must rid ourselves of this model teacher. It’s not easy. In fact, just this year (my 13th in education), I was able to give students more choice and voice than ever before through passion projects in the media center. I was able to do this because I gave myself permission to let go of control and release the power to my students.
Yes, some failed miserably. Some didn’t turn a thing in, and some wasted time. Many expressed that they learned more than they thought possible and that they enjoyed the learning! There are facets of this experience that I will certainly change in the future, but one thing will remain the same – they will own the learning. And they will own it without being graded. They will feel the freedom of taking risks.
Another mic drop moment was the discussion of the difference between fail-URE and fail-ING. AJ and John highlight George Couros saying that we shouldn’t celebrate the failURE of our students, but the act of resiliency and the grit of getting back up again. AJ and John talk about reframing failing as success through iterations. I think of it as a productive struggle. Every time our students experience a Breakout from BreakoutEDU, I see the productive struggle. It is so tough to watch their content teachers as we co-teach in these experiences. They desperately want to help the students as I encourage them to let the students struggle with it. The victory is so much sweeter when they have achieved it all on their own. Many of our students are beginning to believe this is true, as well. I know this because they use their hint cards less than they did initially. It’s so much to celebrate success with students, especially when they have achieved that success on their own!
A true craft in writing is using an analogy to describe difficult concepts and these two authors have proven that they are artists. The comparison of differentiation, personalization, and empowerment shown through ice cream examples is brilliant. It’s worth purchasing the book just to read this short section. I want to take a teacher field trip to a Baskin Robbins, Cold Stone Creamery, and Sweet Frog (our own fro-yo spot) to make these connections with our teachers!
Finally, I love the section about the stages John shares as students move from consumers to creators.
- Exposure (Passive Consuming)
- Active Consuming
- Critical Consuming
- Copying and Modifying
- Creating From Scratch
As always, I intend to implement at least one thing from this book. Because I work with both students and teachers, I have a lot of flexibility in my implementations and interpretations of the books I read. I have chosen to go a bit off the beaten path with this one, mostly because I can. Also, I feel that it is in the spirit of the book to do something a bit different. The premise of the book is empowerment and what happens when students own their learning. I am perfectly comfortable sharing that I am still a student. I will always be a student. My learners are also teachers, who are also students. So this implementation will go a bit “top down”, if you will.
I have facilitated somewhere in the vicinity of 50 various breakout experiences from BreakoutEDU with teachers and students in our school over the past two years. (With many breakouts being repeated in classes 3-4 times per day, this results in somewhere between 150-200 total experiences.) Some are digital and some physical. All have been copied straight from the BreakoutEDU platform. In a few cases, I have tweaked clues to better suit our students, but I have never created a BreakoutEDU entirely on my own. My implementation is to create my own BreakoutEDU for one of my media classes and empower teachers (and students) in my building to create their own for their content areas. Following the LAUNCH cycle, I will launch this Breakout to an audience by submitting it to the platform for BreakoutEDU and encouraging teachers to do the same.
It’s going to be messy, however I believe it will be a success!
Empower is the first book released under the IMpress label! Check out this website with an incredible toolkit and more information on maker projects and the Global Day of Design! This is good stuff! The sketches within the book are stunning, and really bring the message to life! I highly recommend grabbing a copy of this incredible book by John Spencer and AJ Juliani! Here’s to hoping they share another book of their incredible knowledge together with the world! Until then, check out their blogs – here is John’s and here is AJ’s. Both of them have also written their own book; AJ wrote The PBL Playbook and John wrote Making Learning Flow. Both are certainly worth a read as well!