Promoting Equity Through Student Voice

Student Voice Inspired

On an unusually sweltering July day, eighty or so spirited education researchers, policy experts and practitioners from the United States and Canada, Europe and Hong Kong are gathered on the 3rd floor of Waterman – one of the University of Vermont’s oldest and least updated buildings.  It is the 2016 International Amplifying Student Voice conference, and despite the air which is dense and lacks any type of flow, the energy generated from the sharing of a diverse array of knowledge, experiences, and aspirations is electric.

I am honored to be in attendance, and extremely proud to have with me, two teachers and three high school students. The Harwood students, once again, affirm that student voice is an essential component in the design and implementation of a system of Student-centered Learning – sometimes referred to as Personalized Learning. Students possess all the elements necessary for education transformation: passion; experiential knowledge; optimism; and a personal and collective investment in the present and future. Their presence is a bold reminder of my own commitment and responsibility to this work.

After three days, we part with a litany of ideas. Some pie in the sky – a learning opportunity in Denmark, a national campaign for student voice legislation, or a state wide student coalition. And others, more pragmatic – an understanding of student voice shared by the Harwood faculty and students, or strategies that promote student voice in the classroom. Dream big, begin small; have impact.

It is now late August, and time to transition from the relaxed pace of long, summer days to the clamor of the school year. The two teachers who attended the conference and I meet with the three students early one morning. We read a variety of resources on student voice that were shared at the conference, and as the youth wipe the summer sleep from their eyes, the messages that inspired them just a month ago jolt them to life; an understanding of how student voice can be used in the classroom as a means for motivation and engagement is clearly a priority.  We unanimously decide to use an excerpt from “Motivation, Engagement and Student Voice”, a Jobs for the Future project written by Eric Toshalis and Michael J. Nakkula, to conduct a text protocol with the Harwood Union faculty using the ‘4 As’.

An overarching theme for our school district is equity; that is to create a school community that embraces the belief that all learners can grow academically, socially and emotionally in student-centered classrooms where they are valued, respected, supported and appropriately challenged. Pre-service was to begin in just a few short days. This year, it would kick off with keynote speaker, Matt Kolan addressing the entire faculty and staff on the topic, “Education Inspired by the Wisdom of Nature: principles and practices for equity and well being.” This would be followed by facilitated breakout groups centered on two objectives. First, to recognize classroom and system practices already in place that promote equity, and second, to raise awareness about our barriers and blind spots.

As we contemplated the connection between equity and student voice, we wondered if the participants of the upcoming pre-service would identify educators’ disparate thinking about student voice in the classroom as a viable strategy to promote equity as a blind spot. Seemingly our selected text, which focuses on the rationale for student-centered classrooms, would be a perfect follow up. We are truly inspired. Then reality revisits us.

Although the text protocol would provide the faculty with an opportunity to develop a shared understanding of student voice, it would do little to ensure ‘amplification’. There is a lull as we silently imagine how to best bring forth the notion of student voice in the classroom in ways that will produce authentic results. We agree, that the activity must encourage and challenge, but not chagrin or threaten. We want teachers to rethink their practice and stretch beyond their comfort zone, not put up the defense wall. After another hour of brainstorming, we decide on two follow up activities; a chalk talk and exit card snowball. Our agenda looks like this:

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Theory into Action

The Five P’s

Harwood Union has a strong culture of youth and adult partnership, and our experience has shown us that ‘prior planning prevents poor performance’. To that end, if we want students to effectively lead, then we must give them the opportunity to acquire the proper knowledge and skills to do so. It is now trending toward the noon hour. As we conclude our meeting, we divvy the tasks – preparing the agenda, reformatting the protocol, crafting a faculty memo, gathering materials, and most importantly, identifying students and setting aside time to provide them with a ‘one shot’ facilitation training.

Typically this latter endeavor would include a school wide shout out – an open invitation, and at least a day long training. Like many schools, there are always the usual suspects who are are not only willing to step up and engage in this type of work, but also have a natural affinity toward it; however, at Harwood, we make a strong effort to engage those who, for a variety of reasons, tend to quietly, or not, hover on the outer perimeter of school, and then provide them the support to be successful if they choose to take the risk.

Although time is short, in addition to the three students who attended the International Amplifying Student Voice conference, seven other students commit, and attend a brief training that includes reading the article in advance, and then walking through the protocols with an emphasis on facilitation strategies. Some, perhaps are a little skeptical by our overwhelming enthusiasm, so we comfort them by the fact that we will pair two students with one adult. Overtime, we have also recognized the power of the youth and adult partnership in producing more successful outcomes. The students will serve as the lead facilitators and the adult as the one who will keep time, and manage the materials.

The Learning Community

The Harwood faculty is divided into five ‘Learning Communities’ or interdisciplinary groups that meet twice monthly. There is an overarching school wide goal, with each Learning Community then selecting a personalized focus within the framework of that goal. Our overarching goal is to collaboratively examine teacher practice and student performance to develop and implement more effective instructional practices in order to improve student engagement and achievement.

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Chalk Talk Results

At a first glance, having students facilitate a Learning Community meeting that calls upon teachers to publicly examine their practice seems absurd – why would you expose teachers in front of students in such a way? Simply, if the learning organization is truly committed to improving instruction and student achievement, and understands – believes that this cannot happen in isolation, and has been intentional in creating a culture of care and trust, then the concept of youth and adults as partners in improving learning for students and teachers, and partners in improving the organization for all, is sensible and worthwhile.

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Snowball Activity

The Results

It is now early January, and I am reflecting on the results. Visually the outcomes of the meeting were promising. As teachers discussed the text and unpacked the ‘spectrum of student voice’ and identified shared practices currently be implemented in the classroom, they recognized that across the school exits exceptional creativity, shared practices, pockets of true innovation, and room to grow; and perhaps, most importantly, that the shift toward a system of Personalized Learning that includes student voice as is taking shape without a collapse in rigor or results.

The historical concept of the teacher as the keeper of  knowledge, and the student as a participant to be seen and not heard is finally dissipating. Furthermore, at Harwood the youth and adult partnership in learning is also contributing to classroom and school environs that are more equitable. As the second half of the school year unfolds, collectively students and teachers will continue to carry the work forward.  This includes students completing the Harwood Teacher Feedback and Reflection form – a process that provides students an opportunity to reflect on themselves as learners while giving teachers feedback about the course, pedagogy, and the climate in the classroom. At the same time, teachers can reflect on these results while also examining, in their Learning Communities, strategies toward student-centered classrooms.  Dream big, begin small; have impact.

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