From Book Choice to Genius Hour: The Journey to Student Empowerment

In this 20th year of teaching, I'm embracing the idea that teaching = constant learning.  I'm accepting that my desk will always be messy - covered with YA I'm previewing, professional books I'm reading, post-it notes, notebooks, and probably lunch.  I'm accepting that I will never feel like an expert.  But, you know what?  That's a huge relief!  This messy, winding, joyful, uncertain journey is just where I'm supposed to be.

This year's learning in my classroom has been about increasing student ownership, which means I'm thinking a lot about student empowerment.  This image, from George Couros, is living at the front of my brain right now:

This continuum relates not only to the learning environment in my classroom, things like the choices students make, the units of study we do and the topics we investigate, but also to human issues.  How are my students developing their voices?  How are their identities valued?  How are they developing their self-concept as human beings who matter in this world?  Student agency isn't just something nice to have in our classrooms; it's essential.

In my classroom currently three key components are in place to increase student ownership and agency.  They're not enough, but they are a start.

1.  Independent Choice Reading:  Students selecting their own books is the foundation of everything in our classroom.  The minute they walk through the door, student cannot help but notice that they are surrounded by books - shelves and shelves of books, hand-selected to be interesting to the wide variety of students that I teach.  The library is ever-growing, and ever-changing.  It will never be finished and it will never be perfect. But that is part of the fun. 

Students develop ownership over reading first by exploring.  Most students walk into class in August not having much of an idea of what they like to read (many claiming they hate to read and there are no books they'll ever like), so it's important to spend time letting them browse, sampling a huge variety of books from novels to poetry to graphic novels to a wide range of nonfiction texts.

Once students begin reading and figuring out what they like, they need to constantly see new possibilities of the role books play in our lives. They need a steady stream of book talks and conversations with classmates that continually put new titles in front of them. They need to see books with characters who look and act like they do, and they also need lots of books that will push them outside their comfort zones, allowing them to explore others and their values.

2.  Book Clubs:  In addition to the pleasure of connecting with books they love, students also need to know the power of books to change the world.  This summer we joined Project LIT Community, a book club started by Jarred Amato, a high school English teacher in Nashville.  Project LIT Community's goals are to spread the love of reading and to eliminate book deserts.  With Project LIT Battle, students can choose to read books with social justice themes, to discuss the books, and also can also take a leadership role in planning discussions, talking with adults in the school and community about reading and social justice issues, and impacting our community by sharing books and the love reading with others.

Project LIT is also helping kids see books as ways of getting messages out to the world.  As we've read and discussed Nic Stone's book, Dear Martin, we've woven in conversations about argumentative writing.  Not only does Dear Martin bring attention to the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and what peaceful nonresistance means, but Nic Stone makes a strong case against racial profiling.  By emotionally engaging her readers and jarring them out of their seats, Nic helps readers not only see changes we need in this world, but to feel why those changes are essential. From this model, students have brainstormed lists of issues in our world that they care about and are planning pieces of writing of their own that have an emotional impact on readers.

3.  Genius Hour:  Last summer I read Joy Kirr's book Shift This!, and in January, it was time to dive in to more student-driven learning.  I started out nervous that Genius Hour time might be playtime or just a bunch of kids endlessly scrolling their phones claiming to be researching.  But that hasn't happened at all.  They actually really like it and have been highly engaged in their projects.  On days where we've read poetry or taken longer than usual with our Writer's Notebook writing, I get asked, "Aren't we doing Genius Hour today?  We only have 30 minutes left, you know."

The variety of projects students have come up with is amazing.  Johnathan is studying how to make more effective Youtube videos. Angela, a student from Ghana, is fascinated by the Civil Rights Movement and is currently planning her own documentary. Faydra, who loves all things fantasy in her reading, has decided to write her own fantasy story. She is currently exploring writer's craft and is using her independent reading book as a mentor text, specifically to see how authors create realistic settings for their stories.  These are not units of study or assignments I would have planned for my class, but having chosen them on their own, students are deeply invested.

What more can I ask for right now?

When I say I'm on a never-ending learning journey as a teacher, that's not just talk.  I am far from a classroom that is 100% driven by students; our Genius Hour is definitely a work in progress, but we've made some significant gains this year.  For me, this is a journey that can only go forward.  I can't go back to only valuing students being on-task and engaged in an assignment I've created. I cannot miss the profound impact of choice on our classroom, and I can't imagine taking away the community and leadership opportunities Project LIT has created.  And, with Genius Hour, I think we're just at the beginning of seeing the things students are capable of creating when they are given the freedom to follow what interests them.  My students have really good ideas and smart things to say when I step back.  I cannot wait to see what else we all learn!

Happy Sunday Everyone!


  1. Lynn, thank you for sharing this part of your journey! I, too am "on a never-ending learning journey as a teacher." I, too, "am far from a classroom that is 100% driven by students." And... Genius Hour will ALWAYS BE "a work in progress." We are on this journey together - learning and trying new things. I'm so glad Shift This has had a role in your journey. I can only imagine the students of yours you'll be inspiring for years to come! :D

    1. Thank you so much, Joy — for reading and commenting, but most of all for helping me take this leap. It has been so rewarding!

  2. Would love to be a student in your class. In a way, I am. Always learning from you, my friend.


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