This is the latest in a series of blogs from the teacher cohort.
By Brett Slezak
Although the young people of our nation have a long amazing history of leading change in our country, in the past month youth voice has been re-jettisoned into the spotlight and schools are re-learning how to define and support youth voice. Maybe it has been the past 20 years of a narrowing focus on standardized testing that has left schools complacent in thinking about how to handle student voice. Maybe it’s due to a relatively long time period of events that haven’t compelled students to activism. Maybe it is a combination of a lot of things that have left schools wondering about how to support all of their students’ voices. However, what we are currently seeing in the media is centered solely around protesting, marching, 1st Amendment rights, and headlines meant to grab attention. While there is no doubt that these are important parts of student voice and pose serious challenges for school to tackle, it is important to understand that student voice is confined to only student protests. A true culture of youth voice doesn’t normally just grab headlines; it's a school culture that allows students to engage in the world on their own terms.
In our work in the Fluency Project, we have spent a lot of time dissecting and reconstructing what student voice is and how it plays out in schools. Spend some time in any school building and you’ll see examples of student voice everywhere, from Kindergarteners expressing themselves through “Who I Am” projects hanging on the walls, to student council elections at the high school, to digital portfolios that let students share their work with teachers, classmates and parents. These are the types of things that we expect to see in schools that elevate student voice. However, creating the right student voice culture in K-12 schools is about more than just providing outlets to display work. Fostering student voice is more about actively bringing students into a process and then giving real weight and value to their ideas and thoughts. Often you will hear that student voice is “giving kids a seat at the table,” which I agree, is part of student voice, but usually just giving students a seat at the table ends in one of two ways:
Scenario 1: Students are asked to be part of a committee that is made up of teachers, students and administrators. There are lots of “focus group” type activities to capture thoughts and ideas. At the end of the process, the decision makers give great lip-service to the students about how insightful and wonderful they are. But the students’ voices are never given any real consideration, a decision was made before the committee was even formed, and the students (and even the teachers) are left feeling disenfranchised because it was clear their voice was not important in the final decision.
Scenario 2: Think about the same committee, but this time the teachers and administrators are so overly excited about their student involvement that they don’t give enough structure or support to help students refine and discover their own voice. While I would certainly rather have this happen than the first scenario, often times these projects are not as effective or impactful as they could have been, because the adults have completely removed themselves from the process and the students haven’t fully developed all their “voice” skills.
I believe that a school culture that truly values student voice is rooted somewhere in the middle of those two scenarios. It is a framework in which the school operates out of that gives real weight to student voice without being dismissive but also not being overly permissive. The most important part of all of this though is that students are supported in having their own ideas, and the adults in the building help students to refine their own voice in ways that are productive, appropriate and impactful. There are countless ways in which people can express their voice. It is our job as educators to help students understand who they are so they can make decisions on how they can express their own thoughts, their own solutions, and their own voice.
It is easy to go down the rabbit hole of all the different ways in which a 100 year old, assembly line, educational model is designed to repress student voice. I think it is healthier to ponder all of the places in a school today that can be used to elevate student voice. Immediately today, we can think differently about our instructional practices. We can provide more choices to students in their classes in how they engage in their work. We can let student inquiry drive the learning that takes place. We can involve students in the decisions that impact the building they learn in every day. We can ask students to design their own learning spaces with simple furniture rearrangements. We can give students real problems to solve and allow them to come up with real solutions. None of this costs a thing, except the adults in the building relinquishing the work of learning to the students.
So as we continue to see more youth protests, marches and students exercising their voice, I will continue to take interest in seeing how youth voice plays out in our country. But I can’t help think that people resort to protesting when they feel like there are no other option for their voices to be heard or valued. Maybe, just maybe, if we create a national school culture that truly values the voices of our students everyday, they wouldn’t have to feel the need to protest to be heard.