A Voice in the School

An unexpected response; it was powerful, and the likes of these can only be unearthed by giving all students a voice in the school.  We were in a ‘wagon wheel‘, and the first prompt asked, “Describe a time when you had choice in your learning. What worked for you?”

The inner circle began. The student across from me described a project he did for his English midterm exam. “It required us to reflect on our learning and demonstrate our growth using evidence. We could present in any way, shape, or form we wanted.” I broke protocol, and pushed him asking, “Why did this work for you?” Brace yourself. He responded, “My birth parents didn’t value education. I was raised not to talk about school. I was not encouraged to learn, and I was not allowed to do school work at home. I have so many gaps. This project let me share my growth versus making me feel bad about what I didn’t know or learn, like on a test.”

The rationale for Personalized Learning could not be expressed more authentically. It could not be justified more poignantly. The ‘wagon wheel was part of  Harwood’s third All School Dialog; one strategy we employ to elevate student voice – one component of a system for Personalized Learning.  In lieu of our Teacher Advisory and Extended Learning Block on this frosty February day, we had a ninety minute dialog. Members of our Student Government, Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together, and the Student Leadership Team identified topics based on the outcomes from the dialog last year. They collaborated on the structures that would be used; a ‘dotmocracy’; a ‘body poll’; the ‘wagon wheel’; and a ‘snowball activity’, and they secured a cohort of students who would participate in a half day training to serve as dialog facilitators.

The student body and Harwood faculty – who were simply participants, were divided into groups of 12-16. Facilitators were paired – more experienced students with novices just learning the skill. The student facilitators began by introducing the purpose and reviewing the agreements for participation.

The purpose for our All School Dialog this year was two-fold. First to explore student perceptions about student voice both in school decision-making and in classroom learning. This was done using a ‘body poll’ followed by the ‘wagon wheel protocol. The protocols provided equitable opportunities for students to identify their perceptions about student voice in the process of school decision-making, and to share their personal experiences about voice and choice in the classroom. In addition, the protocols allowed for the expansion of student understanding about voice and how to exercise it. Last, the facilitators solicited recommendations for improving – amplifying student voice. These suggestions were collected and they will be collated, themed and presented to various decision-making groups across the school.

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The second purpose was to circle back to the topic of technology in education that was explored during our All School Dialog last May. The results of student input from that first discussion had been themed. The themes were then transposed into questions along with the three most common student recommendations to improve technology in education practices and/or learning in the classroom. In a ‘dotmocracy’ format, students then voted for the recommendations they thought should be areas of focus for school improvement; this is a means for students to influence and shape the Harwood Union Action Plan for Personalized Learning.

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At the end of these Dialogs, I am so inspired, and with each one, the impact is strengthening.  I am awed by the level respect and risk I observe; youth and adults articulating diverse viewpoints, sharing personal experiences, and seeking to understand each other more deeply. The students especially were thoughtful in not only suggesting ways to bridge the gaps in our system but in supporting each other with advice; that is how to improve – real or imagined, a sense of marginalization or lack of agency at school or in the classroom.

Despite the logistics involved in planning and conducting the All School Dialog, along with the energy it takes to create a culture that not only understands and believes in the purpose, but is willing and able to actively participate, this activity is probably the singular most relevant and effective practice we have in preparing all students with the knowledge and skills for democratic citizenry. Simply, it includes and values all voices, and provides opportunity not just for expression, but toward action.