Podcast S1. Ep 36: Empowering Student Voice Through Authentic Independent Learning - Roman Nowak

Houston Kraft · John Norlin · June 24, 2019

Roman is a HS ELA Teacher in Rockland, Ontario, Canada. An educator for 15 years, Roman is passionate about student success, school transformation and building HOPE in schools through authentic learning experiences. Husband, father to two beautiful daughters, educational leader Roman collaborates with educators from across the world to spread kindness, to build impact globally and to tear down the four traditional walls of a school.

We talk with Roman about how we can give more voice, choice, and ownership of the learning to our students. He shares about the  independent research project he designed where the goal only was to make a difference.

“I want them to have fun with it. But then they’re also going to do a TED style talk where they’re going to hopefully inspire others to actually act on what they’ve been researching on. Through this work, they really got a chance through conferences to choose a topic that’s of interest to them. But instead of doing work that stays within our classroom, it’s really how can we go out and make a difference with the learning that we’re doing in our classroom?”

— Roman Nowak

Episode Transcript:

  • Houston: Hey CharacterStrong commuters. Whether this is the first time that you have listened in or you listen to every week, we are grateful for you, To say thank you, we wanted to randomly give away a few things on certain episodes just to show our gratitude. To start, we're giving away three free individual registrations to our CS educator trainings. The first three to use the code CSPODCAST on characterstrong.com/educators will get their registration for free. Thanks for listening and here's today's CharacterStrong podcast episode.

  • John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Roman Nowak. Roman is a high school ELA teacher in Rockland, Ontario, Canada. As an educator for 15 years, Roman is passionate about student success, school transformation, and building hope in schools through authentic learning experiences. Roman is a husband, father to two beautiful daughters, and as an educational leader, he collaborates with educators from across the world to spread kindness, to build impact globally, and to tear down the four traditional walls of a school. Lifelong learner, workshop facilitator and conference speaker, Roman tries to leave a positive impact in schools, districts and social media. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Roman Nowak.

  • John: All right. It is so awesome to have with us today on the CharacterStrong podcast, Roman Nowak. I've been following you man for quite a while and in more than anything on what I've been seeing on social media, the impact you're having, your reflections on your classroom, the thing that drew me to you more than anything else was your passion, your heart for kids, your heart for educators. You're making a huge difference out there. So just thank you so much for making the time to be with us today.

  • Roman: Well, thank you so much for inviting me and loving being here.

  • John: So first I just got to go there for a second because living closer to the Canadian border, but on the opposite side or further away than Washington State. I worked for eight summers at the University of British Columbia as a hockey instructor and I'm a big Detroit Redwings fan, So I just got to make note. You're a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. I don't know if this like combo is going to go well.

  • Roman: I'm a diehard, at least a little sad what happened with Boston, but it's okay, we're ready for next.

  • John: That's right. I like it. There's always next year. I actually got to see the outdoor hockey game at the University of Michigan on New Year's when Detroit played Toronto and it snowed the entire time. There was 102,000 people in that football stadium, which was pretty cool to be a part of that. I believe that Toronto won so you got me on that day.

  • Roman: Yeah, I wasn't there.

  • John: Well hey, let's get right into it. We're a big believer on these podcasts to keep them shorter around 10 because we know that time is a valuable resource for educators and so we tried to cut the fluff, get right to the stuff, and one of the things in our talking before the podcast was I really would love for you to talk about today with those listening about empowering voice through authentic independent learning. I know that you're a high school English teacher, and so talk to me about how you've done that, and even just that really practical, what are ways that you've brought that out with your students and what impact is it having?

  • Roman: Yeah, I've been trying for for a long time to reflect on how we can give more voice and choice to our students, especially at the high school level. We still have this notion that the teacher is the center of all knowledge and we're imparting all this knowledge. So I'm trying to see, "Well how can I give more of that ownership of the learning to my students" One of the ways is I designed this independent research project where my sole goal with them was I want you to make a difference. It can be making a difference in your community, in your school. It could be for a more global scale. I really wanted to leave it open for them. They had to do research on it and research, I try to include as much of their world as our world, so their blog posts, their social media, including their podcasts, picture books.

  • Roman: They do this research and they're going to have a report. I want to include that in it. I want them to have fun with it. But then they're also going to do a TED style talk where they're going to hopefully inspire others to actually act on what they've been researching on. Through this work, they really got a chance through conferences to choose a topic that's of interest to them. But instead of doing work that stays within our classroom, it's really how can we go out and make a difference with the learning that we're doing in our classroom?

  • John: I love it. I mean this is very practical in what you've set up, but the bigger picture here is obviously this. We're a big believer at CharacterStrong in this idea of infusing social, emotional learning, character development into the daily fabric of our schools, our classrooms. Here you are as an English teacher, high school English teacher, and you have intentionally worked into a unit of your work and said with the bigger frame, something that is bigger than us. Make a difference in some way or another. So that is an intentional infusing.

  • John: Talk to me a little bit more about how you set that up. Was it connected to a specific unit? What have been some of the growing pains, if any? Because I'm listening to this and going, "Man, how could I connect this to the work I'm doing?" Maybe just talk a little bit more about the specifics of it and how it's played out.

  • Roman: Yeah, so I'm actually designed it as an independent unit. That's something that we strive to do in general in our language arts classes here is where we give them a autonomous unit that they work on throughout the semester. Traditionally we always do it around the literature, read two novels, compare, do some literary analysis, and I do see the value in it.

  • Roman: What I try to do is I knew we had to do a research report. I knew we had to do some sort of a presentation. I really tried to reflect, "Well how can we tie it to something bigger?" Because our students read a lot. Our students will work for the teachers, but they don't know why, am I doing this? What is the reason behind? So by trying to set up this work, by making a difference out there, by taking a cause that's maybe dear to them, something that they're questioning, we're really trying to work on developing central questions. What kind of research, using more modern research.

  • Roman: Using the blog sites, using podcasts, that in normal classes they'd still be focused on the informational websites and maybe some books, and really trying to tie it all in. The goal is to inspire others to act on something. As I was bringing this in, I mean all the curriculum components are in there. The eventual outcome of the actual product is there, but now they're taking their own interests and they're making it their own project. Now with that, students aren't used to it.

  • Roman: There are growing pains, they are going to be lost along the way. They're going to have questions, they're going to be like, "Well, tell me what you want." I tell them, "Well, what are you interested in?" For them to really work on their passion is challenging for them. That's fun to see, but it's also a lot of work at the same time. But it's very meaningful and I think it has a lasting impact on them.

“I think the biggest thing I had to let go is the sense of control ...I think that was the biggest change for me, but at the same time, it’s the biggest gift ...I see engagement that maybe 10 years ago I would have never seen that. I would’ve never saw that engagement before.”

— Roman Nowak


  • John: Yeah, and especially moving from 30 years ago and even more recent than that, where we were all about information and as the teacher, I'm the keeper of the information, and then I show up, and now I'm going to give it to you. It's like, well, that's not education today. There's so many reasons why we're moving now and have to move beyond information. You can just list a number of them. Google, Wikipedia, Khan Academy. All those different things that has to move beyond information.

  • John: Now, how are we preparing our young people to go out into the world where they're more adaptable learners? How do we create them where they're not just consumers, but creators, all those different things. I think about everything that is involved with what you've set up here. Maybe I'll zero in on this, speak to something that I think a lot of times we see and/or don't see, and I think about it because having been at the high school level for a decade, but there's a big difference between academic engaged time and time dedicated to instruction.

  • John: When we've got actual engagement, it's amazing how much we can accomplish, how much learning is occurring. I think sometimes we think we've got that engagement, we don't. What have you noticed when bringing this in? Even though there's growing pains and those other things, in terms of the level of engagement that is increased overall across all your students, not just the ones that are passionate because they automatically love English being in your class.

  • Roman: You brought up an important point, are they engaged, or are they being compliant to what you're asking for? I don't want everyone to think because we try and do things differently or we bring something like this in that suddenly 100% of all students are going to be engaged 100% of the time.

  • John: Well said.

  • Roman: It's important to go in with the mindset with as many challenges as I have doing typical direct instruction, I'm going to have some challenges because I'm challenging my students to do something that they're not used to doing. So we are going to have those challenges. What I do notice though is students that are willing to go a lot deeper into certain topics. We've actually even that this week worked on a question about how we limit ourselves in society. A lot of times they'll limit themselves. They'll do that minimum amount of research just to get the job done and now they're actually going further. Okay, well I want to know more so I'm going to look more. That's what we want to develop. We want to develop that curiosity in learning and that self directed learning where it's not always the teacher saying, "You have to do this," but the student that's saying, "Do you know what? I actually want to learn more about this."

  • John: So true.

  • Roman: So that's a nice twist to it.

  • John: Talk to me a little bit, and I can only imagine with your passion and vision with that, but because there's many educators that listen. What did you have to if anything, what'd you have to let go of? When you think about it, you've been doing this for a while now and you had some time away where you were helping multiple districts, my understanding now you're back in the classroom. But the idea of bringing something like that in, what did you have to let go of to be able to then do that? Then what kind of impact have you seen?

  • Roman: I think the biggest thing I had to let go is the sense of control. I used to have every day written out, timed out, a calendar made for the semester. I had to stick to I. I think when I let go of some of that control and then I looked and I see the students, and sometimes we'll go off one of the days where they're working on their independent research. Then I'll work out another lesson based on it that then I could tie into something else. I think that more natural flow of learning rather than the strict rigid planning that we were taught as we were learning to be teachers.

  • Roman: I think that was the biggest change for me, but at the same time, it's the biggest gift. I sometimes am stressed that I'm looking, oh my God, I'm looking at other teachers who are doing traditional things and yet my students aren't at the same level of let's say compliance. But then my kids come and talk to me at lunch and then some of them stay after class and they're talking about their topic and they're sending me emails. I see engagement that maybe 10 years ago I would have never seen that. I would've never saw that engagement before.

  • John: There's the reward. When you go through those growing pains and you work through that and you create those opportunities and now you have curious, engaged learners. Imagine what would happen if we had more and more students who are going into the world with those things in their toolbox and in their repertoire, and in their day-to-day being. I just think that is so powerful.

  • John: Well how about this? I don't think there's this is the last time that we're going to talk. I would love to have you on again and even take this a little bit further. But I also know that you're a dad and I can hear your kiddos in the background and I love that and appreciate you making the time because you're three hours ahead of me. But how about this? To end this one with my thanks, how can people connect with you? Because I know that you've got what at least two ED chats that you run. How can people connect with you, and if I'm an educator that's wanting to learn more and I recommend that people connect with you, how can they connect with you?

  • Roman: Probably where my presence is the biggest, I'm a on Twitter on a daily basis, so that's always I try to say the go-to. That's @NowakRo, so N-O-W-A-K-R-O. I do also have a blog site, which I'm in the process of working on how to bring in more blogs. Because coming back into the classroom, my schedule as a dad, and going back in the classroom has changed immensely. But it's Mr. M-R Roman R-O-M-A-N Nowak N-O-W-A-K dot WordPress dot com. I even have my email on there and my Twitter, I'm on Instagram. But if people just even want to shoot out a question or whatever, I do have a chat on Sunday nights all about bringing hope back in education. I'm really passionate about just transforming and being there for kids. That's why I'm here is because I just love talking about it.

  • John: Love it. That is awesome. So the, the ED chat, the hashtag on that for those that are on Twitter as well. Is it Hashtag build?

  • Roman: Hashtag build hope EDU.

  • John: Perfect. And that is Sundays at what time?

  • Roman: Sundays at 9:00 PM Eastern.

  • John: Right. So if you're on the West Coast where we are 6:00 PM or in Central, that would be 8:00 PM, but Sundays catch it. Roman, thank you so much for taking the time and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

  • Roman: Thank you so much for having me on and I'm looking forward to our future chat.

  • John: Take care.

  • Roman: Thank you.

  • John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we are supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.

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Houston Kraft

Houston Kraft is the co-founder of CharacterStrong. He is a professional speaker and kindness advocate who has spoken at over 600 events internationally. Student Body President in High School, Class President at Bowdoin College, Leadership Camp Staff for 14 years in Washington - he is a lifelong learner of character, culture, kindness, and leadership. He was featured in 2019 on BBQ Lays Potato Chips and his mom's lasting life lesson is "Hug like you mean it."

John Norlin

John Norlin is a Co-Founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years.