How to Empower Your Students

(Guest post by author/educator Kelly Curtis)

Sometimes when I speak to fellow educators about youth empowerment, the idea of following student leadership on a project is seen as a complication in an already burdened schedule. In certain situations, this may be true — and it’s a valid concern.

But it doesn’t have to be the case. Obviously it depends on the project, and it may not work with much of the standard curriculum. But in my experience – as well as that of educators I interviewed in the course of writing my book — sometimes the process of empowering young people can make special projects more efficient, more meaningful, and less work for the educator.

As a school counselor, I have had numerous opportunities to carefully turn over the leadership for a youth-led project, and rarely have students failed me. And because they’ve taken ownership, even when they do accomplish less than they’d hoped, it’s their own disappointment – not mine.

Here are a few tips for gradually letting go of the reins:

Openly discuss the project
with the youth that are interested in doing it. Consider including multi-grade students where possible to create a broad base of workers for future years. Brainstorm possible avenues and consider what could make the project successful, as well as what would make it fail.

Clearly communicate your expectations for those involved in the project. Define your role, stepping back from execution as much as possible. Identify roles, if appropriate, including less obvious, but vital jobs like cheerleader or pizza-getter.

Sketch out a timeline
to help identify which pieces of the project must be completed at which times, as well as who is claiming responsibility for those items. Know that several pieces to the puzzle may fall apart at the last moment, and schedule plenty of time right before your final event, to work out the kinks.

Celebrate the completion
of the project, and discuss with all stakeholders the parts that went well, and those that can be improved in the future. Brainstorm a list of future participants and projects.

And always remember the true purpose of the project. If you think carefully, you’ll probably decide it wasn’t the product that meant so much. It was the process of getting there.

Kelly Curtis is a Wisconsin school counselor and author of Empowering Youth: How to Encourage Young Leaders to Do Great Things. She also creates research-based products for prevention-minded educators. To read more about Kelly, please visit her Weblog, Pass the Torch.

5 Comments on How to Empower Your Students

  1. Activities like the ones you describe were a goal and something I looked forward to doing when I was teaching full-time in a middle school setting.

    I had been selected to run a grant-funded, redesigned classroom full of technology that turned everyday instruction into problem-solving, team-building, PowerPoint-displaying evaluations. Unfortunately, the district didn’t support it (or me) long-term. As a third-year rookie, it slowly turned into a mess. The stress and strain of being a rookie, being “different” with that classroom, and still having to teach the required curriculum just became too much.

    However,if I ever went back to teaching full-time, these types of projects would be *exactly* what I would want to do!

  2. Thanks Mystery Teacher! And Beth – you bring up such a great point. We need support in order for anything to be successful the way we want it to be. That’s no different with youth empowerment.

  3. Wonderful post! I always seem to struggle with letting my charges take responsibility for the learning that does or doesn’t occur. This is a great idea.

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