Our collective brains are abuzz with back-to-school feels – but education is a daily obsession at Black Sheep. Read on for two book reports covering the promise of student-empowered learning and the impact of education on an unlikely Ph.D. candidate with a conflicting past.

Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning

Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani is a guide for teachers and school administrators hungry to shift their students from compliant boredom to passionate learning. Students spend 14,000 hours in classrooms following an education path laid out over 100 years ago. And it’s just not working.

Empower offers some pretty compelling ideas for educators who are ready to buck the system and, perhaps, already are but need some inspiration. This is a book for teachers and lovers of learning that are sold on the importance of developing activated, engaged learners and aren’t afraid to speak out and try something new:

  • Student empowerment is where it’s at. Period. While the education system isn’t going to change overnight, there are opportunities for teachers to have an impact by connecting skill building with problem-solving that makes learning something relevant and alive in students’ real lives. Gives kids choices however you are able to. Let them own their project work and uncover new skillsets that even the most seasoned educator wouldn’t have thought to pair them with. Student empowerment, while messy and a little scary at times, shifts every facet of the classroom experience for the better.
  • We must recognize our current education system as a place where students are expected to follow rules and wait to be told what to do – but school doesn’t have to look like this, just as we don’t want the world to look like this.
  • Every student is a maker and makers are better equipped for life. Empowering students to do, build and create with what they are learning grows a future generation of innovators that understand how to think, experiment, fail and iterate. These abilities are what will drive these students in their future careers – curing cancer, finally get us flying cars and – basically – changing the face of our planet as we know it. It starts today in the classroom and is a million times more important than acing a standardized test.
  • Our learning system must include failing (not failure, there’s a difference).  Failure is permanent. Failing is all about the process – it’s a stop on the way to success that builds the “grit, resiliency and the can-do attitude that make learning contagious.” In a culture obsessed with winners, we have to teach students that those very winners are probably the people who fail the most. They just don’t.ever.stop.

This book spoke to me both as a parent of a 7th grader currently riding the ups and downs of public school life and as a returning current college student myself. It took me decades to truly fall in love with learning. While my formative school years did present some pretty incredible teachers and classes that resonated with me, in retrospect it feels like much of my student life was spent just trying to ‘play the school game’ and get the A.

It wasn’t until I was an adult and began to choose to learn subjects that mattered to me and applied them directly to my life that things really clicked. Engagement, the feeling of empowerment and choice in my education were the missing ingredients. While I still had to take a statistics class in college (not really my subject matter first choice, per se), I did so in a learning environment that was heavy on practical application and allowed me to have more control over project work and classroom interaction. Suddenly Stats class was something I looked forward to!

With Empower‘s encouragement and ideas, teachers can begin to experiment in shifting their students from a compliance to engagement mentality even within the rigid confines of a prescribed and one-size-fits-all system – one ‘Genius Hour’ and maker project at a time.

> Katie, @happykatie


Educated: A Memoir

On its surface, Educated by Tara Westover is a memoir about a fundamentalist Mormon survivalist with no education who manages to complete a PhD at Cambridge. As you dive deeper, you discover a work about one woman’s struggle to overcome abuse and redefine herself while struggling with the restrictions and freedoms of nature vs. nurture on her psyche. Is she betraying her family and religion or merely understanding that she has been done a grand disservice for the majority of her life? Are her successes and failures God’s will ( or punishment) or does she have the agency to control her own life and its outcomes?

I picked this book because I enjoy memoirs, especially those that have a sociological focus. After reading and liking Hillbilly Elegy, which is about overcoming the class and environmental constrictions of growing up in Appalachia, Educated seemed like a great follow-up – and it delivered some strong takeaways:

  • Non-traditional education (or a lack of a formal education) can still ultimately lead to academic success but requires outside guidance.
  • With enough nurturing and self-realization, you can overcome your environment.
  • Abuse comes in many forms and isn’t always easy to detect, especially when it is conflated with religion.

It made me both angry and sick to my stomach due to the level of ignorance and abuse that Tara was subjected to in the name of God and family loyalty. I was shocked to discover just how profoundly uneducated she was. For example, she had never heard of the Holocaust until she was attending BYU and when she pressed her father on it later, he explained the Holocaust was a Jewish conspiracy for power.

However, I was ultimately relieved and happy for her, when she finally made the decision to separate herself from the toxic members of her family and pursue her own dreams. Education has the power to raise us up into new worlds, opening doors and opportunities that change our lives forever.

> Dionella, @dionellanatasha