Ross Cooper

Principal or Asst Prin - Elem

Nyack, NY

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  • Posted 10 Months ago
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Book Review: Empower #EmpowerBook

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There are a few education blogs I read on a consistent basis, and two of them belong to A.J. Juliani, who generally blogs about innovation, and John Spencer, who mostly blogs about creativity. Currently, A.J. is the Director of Technology and Innovation for a public school district in Pennsylvania, and John is a full-time professor of educational technology for a college in Oregon.

In May 2016, the due released their first book together – LAUNCH: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student. In short, LAUNCH (which I highly recommend), takes the increasingly popular design thinking process and makes it accessible and fun through A.J. and John’s LAUNCH Cycle. In fact, not too long ago I wrote a post – “Reimagining Learning Spaces with Design Thinking #HackingPBL” – which outlines how the LAUNCH Cycle can be leveraged by teachers to have students design their classroom at the beginning of the school year.

Then, last February, A.J. informed me that he and John would soon be releasing their second book together – Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning. Empower was published towards the end of June, and in early July I was able to get my hands on a copy when I rant into A.J. at the National Principals Conference in Philadelphia.

I finished the book not too long ago, and here are some of my initial thoughts. 

This book is beautiful. Ifyou’re familiar with John Spencer’s work (and you should be), you already know that so much of what he does is accompanied by his signature sketches and videos, which make his work instantly recognizable. This same brand was infused into LAUNCH, and then even more so into Empower. Throughout the book, key points are hammered home with sketches, hand-drawn diagrams, and large pull quotes. Notably, these designs often span entire pages. And, these features help to promote a reading process that is both enjoyable and easy (with more than enough substance to make the book completely worthwhile).

This book is dripping with passion. As I read through Empower, it didn’t strike me as a book that A.J. and John wanted to write, but rather something they had to write. In a way, it reads as a manifesto that encompasses so much of what they believe our classrooms could and should look like. And, over and over again when referring to students, in various ways they cry, “It’s about them, not us!” This is a gauntlet that is initially thrown down in George Couros’s foreword, in which he claims that shifting from compliance to engagement is not enough, and why empowerment should be our final destination.

This book is practical. Along with all of the passion, which will undoubtedly tug at your heartstrings, there are countless practical tips and strategies that can help any educator who is shifting to a culture of student empowerment. Many of these methods are entirely unique and original, and several of them can be implemented “tomorrow.” Here are a handful of them:

  • Seven ways to encourage students to become self-starters
  • Four components of students as self-managers
  • The seven stages students follow as they move from consumers to creators
  • Six ways students can assess their own learning
  • A seven step process for empowering your students

Some Highlights (literally, what I highlighted while reading)

“I’m not going to let you get away with that. What you say matters. And when you choose to stay silent, you rob the world of your creativity.”

“Yet the problem is that we often fail to encourage students to try new things and instead demand that they try new things.”

“When students were bored, I doubled down on the entertainment factor. When they were confused, I simplified my explanations. But we were all going in the same direction at the same pace in the same way.” 

“What decisions am I making for students that they could make for themselves?”

“Although we often had a shared-classroom learning target for the day, students could self-select additional learning targets depending upon their own need for intervention or enrichment.”

“…the system isn’t designed for epic adventures.”

“Not every student will become an entrepreneur, but they will all someday need to think like one.” 

“Often teachers will set up external deadlines for various phases in a project. But this can actually shortcut the vital skill of project management.” 

“You can’t learn this type of self-management with packets of worksheets.”

“Consuming is actually necessary for creativity…After all, most chefs enjoy great food. Most guitarists love listening to music.”

“Think of the last time you learned a new skill outside of school. Did you wait for a grade? Or did you assess your own progress and make adjustments as a result?” 

“If Baskin Robins is differentiation and Cold Stone Creamery is personalization, frozen yogurt is empowerment based upon a system of flexible design.”

“What if our lessons, projects, units, and assignments were adjustable? What if our rules, procedures, and structures were flexible? What if students felt the permission to modify things on their own? What if we adapted the system for the students rather than forcing the students to fit into the system?” 

“If you want people to understand and identify with a complicated concept, tell a story about it.”

In the End

As a curriculum nerd, admittedly I have painstakingly plodded through many “curriculum books” that contain valuable information, but at the price of having to endure a writing style that is commonly found in scholarly journals. In contrast, Empower is a rare book that contains an impeccable balance of flash and substance. It’s as fun as a children’s book, while still packing in more than enough inspiration and ideas to forever change what we believe about the roles of students in our classrooms.

Check out the book’s official website.

Check out the book on Amazon.


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