Review – Empower: what happens when students own their own learning

I picked up Empower: what happens when students own their own learning by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani for a professional development activity with my school’s literacy team. We have a focus on project based learning and empowering students to find their passions.

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much. My school already offers a Genius Hour (student driven project based elective) as well as a 10th grade compassion project and a senior year passion project. Students are pursuing their interests and passions all over the place in my building, which is awesome, but my mind went directly to: “what do we have to learn about this stuff when we’ve been doing it for years?”

Empower: what happens when students own their own learning does reiterate many of the things we already do, but I particularly like the quotable moments and graphic explanations of ideas that I can take right into my classroom and share with students.

If your school doesn’t empower students to pursue learning they are passionate about, I highly recommend reading Empower: what happens when students own their own learning. Or if you are just starting the process of implementing student driven inquiry in your school or classroom this book is for you. If your school is already deep into this type of inquiry and learning, then Empower might not have so much to offer you.

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Here are 5 things I love about Empower.

1. Empower is super easy to read and straight forward

Empower starts by explaining the difference between obedience, compliance, and empowerment. Followed by a graphic illustrating student agency. The rest of the book follows this format: explanation, anecdote, graphic. Each page has either a pop out quote, illustration, or other graphic. There are no long chunks of text. You won’t find any tricky educational vernacular or overly convoluted sentences.

I am a huge believer that there is beauty in brevity and this book exemplifies that. There is no fluff, just pure useful and/or inspirational information.

2. Graphic Elements

Students aren’t the only ones who need a break from large chunks of prose. Empower: what happens when students own their own learning turns text into graphic elements.

Screenshot from:
Screenshot from:

3. Empower is realistic

In the forward, the authors acknowledge that we don’t have total control over our classrooms. We have curriculum maps and standards of learning and mandated objectives. I like that Empower: what happens when students own their own learning focuses on “areas we have control and influence over as teachers, instructional coaches, or school leaders” (xxxvii).

Spencer and Juliani acknowledge that students will still have to take standardized tests and teachers will still need to prepare them for those tests, but they suggest that empowering students and giving them more opportunities to pursue what they want to learn is actually “teaching above the test” (xxxvii).

They also admit that project based learning and student driven inquiry can be messy and isn’t always successful for all students.

4. Empower is funny

I appreciate a dose of humor with my pedagogy so I appreciate that Spencer and Juliani don’t take themselves to seriously. They pepper the text with quips and jokes that remind readers not to take themselves to seriously and that learning should be fun.

On page 37 an illustration can also function as a stop animation of Pac Man.

5. Empower connects perfectly with my last recommendation: Grit: the power of passion and perseverance by Angela Duckworth

Before even getting to the first chapter, Spencer and Juliani note that “hard work does not guarantee success, but lack of hard work guarantees that there will be no success” (viii). The ideas in Grit and the ideas in Empower are different sides to the same coin. They both teach us how we can help students be more successful in an unpredictable future.

Spencer and Juliani note that empowering students is “about shifting our mindset, which will ultimately lead to students not only believing they can change the world, but doing it because of school” (ix). If this isn’t your dream as a teacher then I don’t know what is.

What I don’t love about Empower

My school is already implementing most of the suggestions within this text so it wouldn’t necessarily be a useful text for everyone in my building (some yes, some no). It really depends on how far you are in implementing student driven learning in your school and in your classroom.

Also, although I loved the graphics. I felt like some of the full page text graphics were more there to take up space and make the book look longer than it really is. Perhaps justifying the $16.99 price tag.

Overall though, I filled this book up with sticky notes and went crazy with my highlighter. Even as a teacher who considers myself pretty “woke” when it comes to student driven inquiry I was still inspired and encouraged by Empower: what happens when students own their own learning

I would definitely recommend Empower for new teachers and teachers in training.

Looking for more helpful reading material? Check out these posts:

I recommend reading Brené Brown

Review: Angela Duckworth’s “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”
Recommended reading for future/new teachers

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A Teacher's Guide

I am a National Board Certified educator currently teaching in Virginia. I have taught the following: English 9, 10, 11, and 12 (on academic, collaborative, and honors levels); Dual Enrollment English; Mass Communications, Yearbook, Newspaper, and Communications Technology. I have experience in five different school systems, four in Virginia and one in Maryland. I served as my school’s 2019 Teacher of the Year and was a top five finalist for the Teacher of the Year for Virginia Beach City Public Schools. I am passionate about recruiting and retaining quality educators in our public schools. Let me help you find your path to changing lives through teaching!

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3 Responses

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