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When AJ Juliani and I co-wrote the book Empower, we focused on the ways that students could own the learning process. It’s the core idea of shifting from being teacher-centered toward being more student-centered. We often talk about what it means to move from compliance to engagement. It’s the idea of creating an environment where students want to learn rather than have to learn. But if we want students to be creative, self-directed learners we need to go beyond student engagement and into empowerment.

You can imagine it as a continuum of student agency moving from teacher-centered to student-centered.

Continuum of student agency from teacher-centered to student-centered. It goes from compliance to engagement to empowerment.

Note that each approach is necessary. In reading, I might take a compliance-driven approach when introducing phonics and blending. As we do a whole class read aloud or small group literary circles, students will shift toward engagement. During silent, choice-driven reading, students are empowered by a sense of ownership. They choose the book, the place, and reading strategies they practice.

The following video explores this shift.

And yet, when we first wrote this book, AJ and I focused on the pedagogical aspects of student ownership. Things like student choice in topics, in selecting strategies, in self-selecting scaffolds, and in self-assessment. However, the driving question goes beyond academic learning. If we ask, “What are we doing for students that they could be doing for themselves?” then the answer isn’t purely academic.

What am I doing for studnets that they could be doing for themselves?

The answer to this question might include the classroom systems. This might involve classroom jobs. For more on that, check out this interview I did with Thom Gibson. It could involve a student leadership team (something I’ll be exploring in an upcoming article). But it could also involve the procedures, the values, and the norms of your classroom community.

Three Ways Students to Empower the Classroom Community

As educators, we can build this sense of ownership by empowering students to help design the classroom systems and structures. They can take ownership of the classroom climate and culture. Here are three ways to make this happen.

#1: Empower Students to Choose the Class Norms

“Why is everyone cutting in line?” I asked in frustration.

“What line?” our guide asked.

“The line. The queue. People are just rushing forward and cutting,” I said to my guide.

“Well, this is Yueyang City, not Portland,” he reminded me. “Our norms are different.”

In this moment, I was enraged over the sense that everyone around me was acting unjustly and yet I had failed to even ask, “Is a line the best way to organize a group of people?” Coming from the U.S., I hadn’t considered the way groups self-managed in China. Our guide explained the nuanced difference. “It’s not that queues aren’t normal here. They are. But we let the elderly move forward. It’s a sign of respect.”

I shrunk back in embarrassment as the cliche “ugly American.” I had internalized a very Anglo norm (common in the UK and the US) and hadn’t even considered how this norm had shaped my sense of right and wrong.

Norms are powerful, unspoken rules that guide communities. They exist at a national level but also in sub-cultures. My boys play baseball and they’ll tell me, in detail, why it’s not okay to bat-flip or watch a home run; why you should never touch the spot where you get hit by a pitch; why you call a timeout as a pitcher if you accidentally hit an umpire with a pitch. These powerful norms define what’s “wrong” or “right” within America’s past time.

The same is true of a classroom. Our classroom norms shape the sense of community we encourage. But each group is different and the norms are likely to change from year to year. For this reason, it can help to negotiate class norms together as a community. Instead of imposing rules from above, we can ask students guiding questions such as:

  • What does respectful communication look like?
  • What does it mean to respect the physical equipment and materials?
  • What does it look like to be prepared?
  • How do you want to be treated by the people around you?
  • What kind of freedom do you want to enjoy? How can we respect the freedom of others?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of guiding questions. However, it can help to start with these questions and discussions and then move into a set of categories for norms, such as: norms for collaboration, personal work ethic norms, academic integrity norms, etc. The following are sample norms for student collaboration.

Sample Norms:

  1. Keep the language respectful. Avoid insults or putdowns.
  2. Be clear and truthful.
  3. Listen intently. This means waiting for the other person to finish speaking before you speak up. It also means listening with the goal of understanding the other person’s view rather than listening to then prove them wrong.
  4. Trust the other person’s intentions. Give the other partner the benefit of the doubt.
  5. Be willing to take responsibility for your actions and for your future commitments.

#2: Empower Students to Define Collective Values

Every culture has a set of shared values that unify the group and create a sense of cohesion. Often, these values go unnoticed. They function like white noise buzzing in the background. However, they are still powerful.

Shared values exist in tight-nit smaller communities and within entire nations and cultures. They exist within the classroom as well. As educators, we can help students make these values visible by creating a set of shared values. A classroom is still one of the remaining locations where a population remains truly diverse. In an era of echo chambers and filter bubbles, the classroom remains one of the few places where our students will be exposed to a broader range of ideologies and worldviews. Each community will have a beautiful mosaic of diversity, ranging from socioeconomic backgrounds to cultural identity to family structures to religious affiliation to ideological backgrounds to linguistic experiences. We want to embrace the diversity of each student’s lived experience but we also want the classroom community to identify shared values that they have in common in order to build bridges.

Here is an example of how you might help students identify shared values:

Part 1: Start with a personal reflection.

  • What do you care about the most in life?
  • Think of the kind of person you want to be. What are some things you can do to be that person?
  • What are four qualities you value in a friend?
  • What is a life rule that you wish everyone followed?

In an early elementary classroom, you might start by reading a picture book together to set the tone. Or you might ask them to draw a picture of the kind of person they want to be rather than writing it out as a warm-up. At an older age, you might go more advanced with a question like, “What are some values in our society that you agree with? What are some you disagree with?”

Part 2: Discuss with a partner.

In this phase, you might use a set of sentence frames to guide the conversation. Or you might keep it open-ended and see how students do. You might expand it with a question like, “How were your partner’s ideas similar or different from yours?”

Part 3: Silent Writing

Have a set of questions or prompts written on the whiteboard or on chart paper throughout the classroom. A few options might be:

  • In our class, we value . . .
  • We should all agree to . . . Explain our classroom’s community values using only symbols or pictures . . .
  • What kind of a classroom space do you want to share?

Students then answer these questions silently. There’s something powerful about the shared silence as students share their ideas publicly and engage in ongoing conversations without every speaking a word. Often, some of the shy students will “speak up” in these moments with bold words and symbols.

You can run this process as a carousel activity or allow students to move freely from location to location. It can help to partner students up with one person being a reader and the other a writer and then ask them to switch back and forth.

Part 4: Debrief

As students to debrief the activity with reflection questions:

  • What was this like for you?
  • How did you feel?
  • What are some areas where our class might disagree?
  • What are some shared trends that you notice?

For older students, you might expand this activity into a larger Socratic Seminar, where students take the initial reflection questions and engage in a deeper discussion on the topic.

Part 4: Identify values

Together as a class, create your set of shared values. In some cases, you might ask students to vote on the values and see if there is a true sense of consensus. You might rewrite certain values. But in the end, the group should have a set of core values that the whole group can agree upon.

Part 5: Turn these into actions

At the end, have students make the values more visible by using a chart with values and actions.

Values Actions that demonstrate these values


#3: Empower Students to Choose the Procedures

Rituals are simply a set of procedures that people use on a repeated basis. These procedures set the expectations for how things work. They are those systems and structures that help things run smoothly. Often, these procedures seem invisible, based on the visual cues of our environment (an idea that we will explore in the future when we look at UX Design). In many cases, these connect to the norms (another idea we’ll explore in the future). But sometimes the procedures are unclear and in these moments, you might feel confused. You end up doing things the “wrong way” even if you have the best of intentions.

Case in point, years ago I went to a fancy restaurant for the first time ever. It was the kind of place that had a menu with no dollar signs or decimals so that you wouldn’t have to think too hard about how much money you were spending. But this was our honeymoon and I wanted us to go some place fancy. However, within minutes, I realized that I didn’t have a clue how any of this worked. I didn’t know which fork to use. They must have had thirty of them. I didn’t understand that the mini-towel they gave me was not a napkin. When they gave me a lemon sorbet palate cleanser, I told the waiter, “I think this belongs to another table. We didn’t order dessert and we haven’t even ordered our main dish.”

In other words, I didn’t know any of the procedures for fancy restaurant etiquette. I wasn’t violating rules. The waiter wasn’t about to send me to time-out or have me pay a fine for an infraction. Still, I was uneasy and embarrassed for the first half of the meal. But then, as my wife explained everything, I began to understand how things worked in a fancy schmancy restaurant.

On some level, the same is true of a classroom. Students walk in on the first day unsure of how things work. If they’re older, they’ll probably have a general sense of how things work and where things go. But the classroom space is unfamiliar and the expectations are unclear.

When procedures are unclear, the classroom can devolve into chaos. Students can feel unsure or even anxious about the expectations. In these moments, teachers might even discipline a student for a specific action that doesn’t actually violate any class rules.

Traditionally, teachers will take the whole first week to go over classroom procedures with the students. However, there’s also value in asking students to help develop the classroom procedures. Here, you work as the facilitator guiding students through the process of creating and negotiating the procedures for your community. The following are some of the benefits of this approach:

  • You start from a place of empathy. In other words, you start with the question, “how do I create systems to fit the needs of my students?” rather than “how to do I get my students to fit the systems I created?”
  • Your students experience a sense of ownership. When they get to develop the classroom procedures, they experience more voice and choice in the structures and systems of the community space. This sends a powerful message that they belong and that you value their input.
  • You model conflict resolution early. This process will include some conflict and you will have some moments of give-and-take. But that’s okay. You are modeling constructive criticism and conflict resolution early on in the year.
  • You set the tone for a democratic classroom where every voice is honored. Students should leave the experience feeling like they have a place in your classroom. Often, when we have a top-down approach with classroom procedures, we send the message that we value compliance more than anything else. But when we ask students to negotiate the procedures, they learn that we value self-direction and collaboration as well.
  • You provide a solid rationale for all of the rituals you will have in your class. This can make things feel less arbitrary while also allowing the knowledge to stick.

There are many different ways to develop class procedures democratically but I thought I’d share one specific strategy that worked well for me. This procedure grid is visual and functions as a graphic organizer that the entire class can use as they negotiate procedures.

How the Grid Works

On the first day of class, I do a discussion about rituals. Some talk about church, others family or sports. Without realizing it, students adopt certain practices. They raise their hands, for example. We then debrief the current rituals that the class has already silently adopted.

At this point, I introduce the ritual for getting everyone’s attention. I’ll raise my hand silently and everyone else will do the same thing. Next, I invite students to help determine the rituals as a class. My goal here is to empower students to own the procedures as a classroom community. When they negotiate the rituals as a class, there is an increased buy-in and a greater sense of ownership. It doesn’t feel arbitrary. In addition, the negotiation process allows students to see the rationale behind our classroom procedures.

This process also sends a clear message to students that “voice and choice” go beyond assignments and into the classroom community itself. When students help develop the classroom procedures, they internalize the message that their voice matters.

This strategy empowers students by bringing them into the conversation about procedures in the first week of school. Here’s the gist of how it works:

  • Step 1: Students start with a sticky note where they write down any question they have about what they are allowed to do or not allowed to do in class. They might also ask questions about where items are located, how things are turned in, etc. These are typically questions like, “Am I allowed to use the restroom? Can I sharpen my pencil? Can I throw something away? Am I allowed to get materials?”
  • Step 2: As a whole class, we go through the sticky notes and look at questions that are similar. You can do this by having students read and add questions together in a crowd or you can do this by asking the questions as the teacher.
  • Step 3: Take the most common questions and put them into this procedure grid, which is based on the methods of grouping (individual, partners, small group, and whole class). You can check out what this looks like by watching the video at the bottom of this post.
  • Step 4: As a whole class, we collectively decide on the procedures. It helps to encourage students to come up with a strong rationale for their procedures. For example, students might say that headphones are fine individually but they are disrespectful when working with a partner or listening to a teacher. It can be tricky. Some students find it disruptive if you allow students to throw something away direct instruction. Others get anxious having to wait. So, there’s a need in this phase to negotiate these procedures together. In the process, students learn, not only what they are allowed to do but why. It helps to emphasize the need for a balance between freedom and safety. Sometimes I have to be vulnerable and say things like, “I can’t have any noise when I’m talking. If I’m talking, I will need you to stay quiet. But in return, I will create lessons that allow you to talk to one another.”
  • Step 5: Create an anchor chart or poster with the procedure grid. This is a chance to remind students about the class procedures and treat misbehavior as a learning opportunity. I found that it also helps to include the grouping in your slideshows, to reinforce the ideas in the procedure grid. So, if students do a warm-up and see the icon for individual work, they can check the procedure grid if they are unsure of what to do.

It also helps to type the procedure grid up and keep it as a handout for new students who arrive later in the year. Here’s an example of one.

Question Individual Partner Small Group Whole Class
Who can I talk to?


If you raise your hand, you can talk to the teacher. You may also ask questions of one another as long as they are in your group.  Just keep the volume at a lower level. You may talk to your partner only and then if you have a question, go to the teacher. It’s important for partners to problem solve together. You may talk to your group only and then if you have a question, go to the teacher. It’s important for groups to cooperate. If you raise your hand, you may participate in any whole class discussion. Otherwise, people can’t hear one another.
Can I throw something away? Yes, one at a time. Yes, one at a time. Yes, one at a time. No, it’s a distraction to the class.
Can I sharpen my paper? Yes, one at a time. Yes, one at a time. Yes, one at a time. No, it’s a distraction to the class.
Can I turn something in? Yes, one at a time. No, you need to stick with your partner. Yes, one at a time. No, it’s a distraction to the class.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Next week, I’ll share an article about how you can empower students to own the classroom culture by developing a democratic student leadership team.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Carlee says:

    I think this is an awesome way to empower the students with a voice in classroom norms and procedures. I was wondering if this might be particularly impactful for rules and procedures considering group time and instruction? Additionally, do you think it’s helpful to have all of the students sign the chart as a reminder that we created the procedures and norms together?

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