As educators, when asked if we should increase “student voice” in the classroom or schools, our quick response is often “Yes, of course!” However, in reality, are we really, truly engaging our students in leading our schools, having a say in our curriculum, contributing to our decision-making? I know we do try. For example, we have student councils, we ask for student input in surveys, we give choice to students in projects, we ask them to self-reflect and students participate on some committees. We ask for their feedback, we listen, right? However, student voice needs to go beyond just listening.
Harvard Researcher Brion-Meisels points out:
“Listening to young people doesn’t mean unilaterally considering their perspective…It means recognizing that young people have a perspective on the world that adults can’t share, and that their perspective should be welcomed alongside the wisdom that adult perspectives bring” (Giving Students a Voice by Leah Shafer).
In the past month, I participated in four activities that really solidified my own thinking about student voice.
1. Search Committee
The first was a middle school principal search committee where we had students involved in the interview and recommendation process. What was amazing about the interview process was that our students truly had a seat at the table. They brought their own questions as representatives of the student body. (The best questions on our list came from our students!) Then, when we had discussions as a committee, we went to our students first and listened. Their responses were exactly on point and we were thrilled to have them contribute to the conversation, use evidence to support their arguments, and provide a student perspective, such as, “If she were the principal of my school, I would love coming to school!”
2. Student Discussion
The second instance was a meeting with student representatives at our high school where they were asked a series of questions about the school such as:
- Beyond friends, what do you look forward to at school each day?
- If you could change one thing at our school, what would it be?
- If you could give one piece of advice to teachers or administrators, what would it be?”
The following discussion could have continued for a lot longer than the time allotted because the students in the room were excited that they had an opportunity to share their thoughts on what they loved about their school and ideas for improvement. It was an incredibly powerful discourse filled with respect, reasons supported by evidence, and excitement. It certainly was the highlight of my week! The students, who were representative of various grades and interests, described the school as welcoming, inviting, and inclusive. They enthusiastically provided why they loved coming to school and usually it was because of a single enthusiastic teacher who had made learning exciting. They wanted to have more opportunities for relevant learning opportunities and meaningful homework. They liked using technology, but only when it fit the purpose of the assignment, rather than fitting the assignment around the technology.
3. Student Events– 3rd-Grade Tea
Yesterday, I was lucky to participate in a 3rd grade tea that was being held for seniors in the community. Sitting in the middle of a table of about 11, third graders, it was an opportunity for me to ask them about their school experience. Coming off of the high school discussion recently, I figured I’d stick to some of the same questions. I asked them: 1. “What do you like most about coming to school?” 2. “If you could change one thing about school, what would it be?” 3. “What is your favorite subject?” The students eagerly shared their love for math (that was the #1 choice around the table) and we had a few who liked reading. Some wished they had more time for recess, and thought the end of the day would be the best time to do that before leaving for the day. They said they wished they had more opportunities to learn science, and they shared their favorite books of choice. They liked their music class and were looking forward to learning to play musical instruments in the future. They wanted less homework, but admitted they didn’t have too much each night and Lexia was a big hit because they found it to be a fun way to learn. WOW! That’s A LOT of feedback.
4. Student Panels
Last month our counselors provided a workshop to other educators on the implementation of Wellness Weeks. As part of the workshop, the counselors had student representatives speak to the educators about their thoughts about the effectiveness and impact on wellness weeks from a student perspective. To be expected, the educators in the room were enthralled listening directly from students about their view on the positive impact of these successful practices. Adding student voice to these panels was highly effective!
3 Steps To Increase Student Voice
If you are looking to take action and increase student voice, consider some of the following questions:
Do students have a seat at the table?
Think about all the meetings and committees that take place in a school or district and corresponding decision-making. Every time you have a meeting, ask yourself…what if students were here with us at the table? In our district, we have student representatives to the School Committee, students on our Spanish Immersion board, students on panel presentations, and students on interview committees. Despite all of those opportunities, there is definitely room for growth as well.
Are we asking for student input in a consistent way and then following up with implementation?
If you are a district that does not use surveys of students regularly, then that is a great way to begin this process. Surveys are an effective way to gather data, solicit input, and to help inform decisions in a classroom, school, or district. The key to successful student surveys is that the data is then applied to implement change. It is even more effective when students are part of this process of analysis and discussion. Ask yourself, are you sharing the data with the students and are you implementing change based on input?
Do students have input into and the ability to drive their own learning at school?
Although we work within a standards-based system, that does not mean that students can’t have input into their own learning. There are many ways to increase student voice in learning from input into units, activities, the questions they will answer, or the ways they are assessed. Check out this resource from Chicago on how to have students co-shape curriculum: Seven Steps to Students Co-Shaping Curriculum or this article from the organization we use for surveys called K-12 insight: How to amplify student voice in curriculum discussions.
If you are looking for more resources about how to increase student voice, here are some examples of how it is being done in schools across the world.
In my own research about student voice, I came across a local school to ours that has a Student Voice Community Service Program at their middle school. What an interesting approach and a way to say at that school–student voice matters. http://cvirzi.wixsite.com/student-voice/contact
5 Videos to Watch on Giving Voice to Students
Including Student Voice by Bill Palmer
After reflecting on the above questions, I challenge you to take one step forward in increasing student voice before the end of this school year. Using the comment feature of this blog, please share out one way that you will try to increase student voice as an educator.