The Epic Guide to Student Ownership

“Is this real, Mr. J?” The question came from the back of the room. Todd rarely spoke up in class, but today he seemed visibly upset.

“Yes, it is real. Sadly, this type of thing is all too common around the world–”

“But”, Todd responded, “if this is going on right now, why doesn’t the UN or someone go in there and stop it. Isn’t that the reason we have all of these organizations…to stop this?”

Multiple students were raising hands now, eager to share their thoughts on what they had just seen. It was the first time I had shown my 10th grade students the “Invisible Children-Rough Cut Documentary”–and they wanted answers.

“Well”, I said, “let me ask all of you a question first, before we go further into what we just watched. How many of you knew this type of human rights violation was happening…right now…in the world we all live in?”

Not one hand was raised. They all were silent. 

“Don’t you think”, I continued, “that is part of the problem? Don’t you think that everyone would make this a top priority? Don’t you think it would be on every news channel around the world, until something was done to end this child violence?”

After a few more seconds of silence, Kelly, an outspoken student, finally said: “Yeah, it would be all over the news…and we would all know about it…if it was happening in the US.”

“I think you’re right Kelly. And I also think that is an awful truth. So what should we do about it?”

And that was the moment my students decided enough was enough. They CHOSE to tell the world about the human rights violations happening right now in their world. And they CHOSE to not be bystanders anymore.

Students Choosing to Start a Movement

I’ve heard many of the same types of questions, over and over, when talking about student choice.

  • How can you keep students accountable?
  • What if they don’t do anything with their time?
  • Does it connect to the standards?
  • My curriculum is set, how can I do it?
  • This doesn’t seem possible in a class of 25 students…

And yet, my 10th-grade classes were between 25 and 30 students each. The students kept each other accountable in groups. They went above and beyond anything, we had written in our curriculum, and hit more standards than any other project/activity we’d ever done.

own the learning


Because they chose to help create a project that they cared about.

After our discussion about human rights violations, child soldiers, and genocide that was currently happening in our world right now–my students wanted to DO something.

We had recently read Night by Elie Wiesel, and this quote in particular guided our campaign to create awareness about human rights violations:


As a class, we decided to not be bystanders and to take a side. This new project would be a chance to use our voice to spread awareness.

Traditionally, during this Unit students had written a position paper on the Holocaust and Genocide in general, as well as send a letter to a Senator about a current human rights violation.

My group of students wanted to take this further. Together we crafted a new project that would focus on creating awareness about current human rights violations. I say WE because the students had a lot of input into how this project would look, what they would be measured on, and what the ultimate goals and objectives would be.

What Student-Centered Learning Looks Like

Project: Global Inform (PGI) was created in the 2008-2009 school year. The students picked their own groups and researched current human rights violations. Each group picked a violation they felt particularly passionate about and began to develop an action plan. Their action plans allowed the students to judge how effective each method of media was at spreading information and creating awareness. At the end of Project: Global Inform’s first run, hundreds of people had been met face-to-face with information they did not know, while thousands of other teens and young adults saw videos, visited websites, and became Twitter and Facebook fans of media meant to create awareness.

In 2009-2010 Wissahickon High School took Project: Global Inform to the next level. Over 110 students participated and this time the students were even more creative. In addition to the video, web, and Facebook campaigns – groups began to host events dedicated to raising awareness for their cause. This time, not only was information spread, but money was also raised for organizations currently fighting against human rights violations. Thousands of dollars were raised in just under six weeks, showing that students do have the power to make a difference.

Project: Global Inform was one of my proudest moments as a teacher. It still gives me chills when I look at the work these 15 and 16-year-old students were doing to spread awareness on such serious violations.

It was also an example of what can REALLY happen in our schools when we give students choice and ownership of their learning experience. For me, it was when I saw student-centered learning actually happening in the classroom.

Take a look at the definition of student-centered learning, and let me know what you think:

Student-centered learning (SCL), or learner-centeredness, is a learning model that places the student (learner) in the center of the learning process. In student-centered learning, students are active participants in their learning; they learn at their own pace and use their own strategies; they are more intrinsically than extrinsically motivated; learning is more individualized than standardized. Student-centered learning develops learning-how-to-learn skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, and reflective thinking. Student-centered learning accounts for and adapts to different learning styles of students (National Center for Research on Teacher Learning, 1999).

I know we can sometimes rail against terms like “student-centered” learning and call them buzzwords. But the truth is, I want my own kids to experience the type of learning that is defined in the above paragraph. I don’t care if it is a buzzword or not, I only care about the actual work they are doing, and how they feel about the work they are doing.

The next time you do a project or activity in your class, ask these questions:

  • What is the students’ attitude towards learning?
  • Is their commitment to the activity based on external or internal factors?
  • Are students creating their own measures (goals/objectives) for achievement?
  • Are they reflecting on how well they have achieved those goals/objectives, and what could be done differently?

During Project: Global Inform students filled out this action plan template to decide as a group what their goals would be and also what their evidence of success would be:

Action Plan Template

There were many groups who “failed” to reach some lofty goals during this project. But each one of these groups presented to the class about their journey and spoke of how much they had learned even if they did not reach a specific goal. It was the first time I had heard students talk about “failure” in a positive light. Because they realized creating big goals meant you had the opportunity to fail forward.

Until my students showed me what student-centered learning could look like, I didn’t have a clear picture in mind. But I knew this:

I wanted my students to be empowered. I wanted them to care about the work they were doing in school beyond the grade they would receive. 

Have you experienced that moment where your students show you something about teaching and learning that you never knew could actually exist? I’d love to hear about your experience and please share your student-centered story in the comments below!

Wondering How to Start?

If you are wondering where to start with student ownership, I’ve got a free guide to kick-start this type of learning in any classroom. Just enter your email below and get access to The Epic Guide to Student Ownership for free. It’s filled with

The Epic Guide to Student Ownership

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Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Tricia Dennis says:

    I have been working to encourage students to be a part of their learning path. At third grade, this felt like a task that was an uphill battle. But, by the end of the school year, students were beginning to solve their own problem. I appreciate the blog’s encouragement to not abandon goals, because they seem daunting. Embrace the struggle and embrace the failures, something good will come from it.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      You made two really important points in this comment. First, that it is going to take time and feel like a struggle. Empowering students is definitely a challenge for both the teacher and the learners (who are used to playing a very different game of school). But, secondly you mentioned that something good will come from it-and ain’t that the truth!

      Thanks for sharing!

  • Tristan says:

    Where can I buy the book? I don’t see it listed anywhere yet.

  • Katrina says:

    I saw students take ownership of their work when I decided to try Genius Hour this spring with my fourth graders. I was learning right along with them as Genius Hour was my “project”. I used my own learning (and epic failures) to model for them. I was amazed at how hard they worked, how often they asked if they could work on their projects, how disappointed they were when they did not get time and by what they created independently. There were websites created about endangered animals, the NBA finals and the game of basketball (I know nothing about creating websites so they figured this out on their own). Short stories were written with mentors from higher grade levels. Video games were created with a mentor from the high school gaming class. One student conducted a collection of school supplies still in good use to be distributed in the fall for students in need. I was blown away by what was created! And yes, they were hitting all sorts of standards as they researched, blogged, commented on blogs and wrote. And then there was the problem solving, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking! I am a believer in student ownership!

  • Missy says:

    This past school year, our urban parochial school’s 5-8th graders read the book, “A Long Walk to Water,” a dual narrative of the true story of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and that of a present day Sudanese girl whose entire day consists of walking to get water for her family. At the end of the book, The reader learns that a well that’s being drilled was funded by an elementary school in the USA. At that second, our students began asking, “Can we do that, too?” (Hallelujah!! I was hoping they’d ask -ha!) This began a student-led campaign to raise $3000 for Water Mission International. They had bake sales, a walk-a-thon, a car wash, and other fundraisers, and they surpassed their goal on the second-last day of school!!! The 7th – 8th graders took the lead with brainstorming, advertising, promoting the idea to the younger students, etc. It was awesome – both for this worthy cause as well as for the students’ sense of confidence in their ability to help others!!!

  • Paul Kearney says:

    Hi there
    Without going it the issue, I think the inclusion of learning styles weakens validity the definition. It also increases the risk of the definition looking like a ‘hamburger with the lot’. The learning styles concept is surely defunct by now….

    Cheers Paul… from way Down Under

  • John Levasseur says:

    Oh course, Mr. Julian has his finger on the pulse when he talks about student engagement. And every teacher loves positioning a student or class into taking on the responsibility of their education and growth. All the characteristics that the poster associates with students taking ownership of their learning are also the characteristics of developed frontal lopes in the brain. The adult brain develops in the second decade of humans’ lives as a rule. High school students are adolescents. My point is allowing and encouraging students to own their education is good but high school teachers still have to be responsible for scaffolding the development of students academically. See androgogy vs pedagogy.
    Thanks for the thought provoking article.

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