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.
This is the latest in a series of blogs from the teacher cohort.
By Kristen Fischer
I’ve started writing and stopped writing this blog post no fewer than five times. I couldn’t come up with a satisfying idea of what to write about. Seeking a spark, I shuffled through my papers and thought about our Fluency readings and trips. I started then dropped ideas. Interestingly enough, while I struggled with a topic for this blog post, my students struggled with topics for their photojournalism projects. This is a reflection, then, on the quest for topics.
For our most recent assignment, the class has spent six days asking questions--generating inquiry. We started with observations of sights, sounds, and smells. Results included sleeping in class, dressing “bummy,” and yelling in the cafeteria. From there, I modeled how any topic could become a subject for inquiry. My observation had been the smell of coffee. In class, we started by generating a list of questions about coffee that could be investigated, and our launching points were the typical ones: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Our first questions were mundane, like “Who drinks coffee?” and “Where is coffee made?” but eventually we generated some that were genuinely interesting: What are the different reasons that people drink coffee? Is is for caffeine or comfort? Is it a habit or a socialization opportunity? How many students habitually drink coffee, and when did they start? How does this coffee consumption--often motivated by sleepiness--perhaps contribute to insomnia at night and then create a problematic cycle of dependence on caffeine sources and sleep aids? This then sparked conversations of social media addiction and its role in student fatigue. (Sidenote: From this conversation, I learned that today’s teens text in the shower.) It was fascinating to see the evolution of the conversation--from a general, mundane topic of coffee, to a variety of specific and relevant real-world issues, spanning from the challenges of small business entrepreneurship to adolescent health.
We then collaboratively workshopped a topic from each student. With a small class size, this was doable. This, however, wasn’t my original plan. I had allotted two days for brainstorming and peer and teacher conferencing. This turned into six days of brainstorming, which included whole-group inquiry, peer conversations, teacher conferencing. This is definitely the most time I’ve ever invested for students to seek out a topic on any single assignment.
Compared to our last project, where the topics were often--but not always--general and inconsequential (“friends,” “my cat,” “basketball”), these new pursuits seem promising. One pitch has the title of “The Languages of Friendship.” Another might investigate the changing landscape of the high school job. Another is looking at what coaches and students view as the purpose of high school sports and how that view might impact participation rates.
However, for our last project, I had also pushed the students to go beyond generalities of friends, cats, and basketball, and they had mapped out more ambitious paths; we had used post-it notes to map out issues and topics of personal importance,however, upon submission, most projects reflected little of that follow-through. So, I’m concerned about the possibility that once again, many will give up on these promising topics and retreat back to their original generalities: “friends,” “jobs,” and “why people play sports,”, and the others like “nature” and “people’s styles.” On our class planning day, I could already see a few of them trying to do this, despite our pages and pages of fresher, edgier, more authentic, more specific, and more relevant ideas collectively generated, and I tried to encourage them to persevere rather than retreat. I think about student voice here, and what my role should be. If I explicitly say NO to their retreats, I have--in a way--silenced and stifled them. But if I never encourage them from those comfort zones, I haven’t fulfilled my role, either, because I’ve let them stifle themselves.
I think they see that some topics are better than others, so I also have thought a lot about why the students tend to retreat, despite these pages of alternative and fresher ideas. I wonder if they feel those ideas aren’t really “theirs.” I wonder if they feel intimidated by the authenticity of the work involved. I wonder if they perceive these topics as “too real,” and beyond their ability to explore. I wonder if they’re just retreating to those general topics out of habit. I wonder if they just get exhausted by the thought of an unfamiliar challenge, and fall back on something that seems more like a “sure thing,” despite its mundanity. I’m familiar with surrendering to constraints.
The quest for a topic often can’t be completed in one day (which I too often allot for my classes, though the curricular constraints are tighter). Even six days might not be the ideal amount of time to complete the job. In my quest for a blog post topic, I definitely have been reminded that the commitment to an idea at the outset isn’t the end of the challenges, and that once engaged in the act of working with a topic, the initial idea must often transform, for better or for worse. Thus, the quest for an idea goes beyond what’s conventionally seen as the planning stage, and deeply permeates the action stage.
It has also made me reflect on my regular English classes, and my own secondary education. I wonder how often high school students are invited to grapple with the challenges involved in generating topics, and I wonder if they see brainstorming and prewriting as something that’s fluid or fixed.
I know the temptation to just “get it done” exists. I know the way real and imagined constraints of time, uncertainty, resources, know-how, motivation, and comfort level can tear away at once-great intentions. These are the constraints we face as educators, and our students face them, too.
I hope the students will pursue some of these riskier and more authentic topics and eventually complete photo essays reflecting the ICMA model that show the level of creativity and engagement operating in their minds, but even if these grand ideas fail to come to fruition, I hope they’ll have seen the potential they have to uncover and investigate relevant and fresh topics. Generating topics and starting points will never be easy, but maybe if this phase of a project becomes more familiar, this phase will no longer be the main barrier; there will be new ones to tackle, but we will have made progress anyway.
This is the latest in a series of blogs from the teacher cohort.
By Sue Mellon
As a member of the initial Fluency cohort, I spent a great deal of time thinking about ICMA or “Inquiry - Case Making - Advocacy.” Instead of having students select a topic for research, it was an obtainable leap to engage students on a path of inquiry. In terms of case making, the Pennsylvania standards include opportunities for argumentative and persuasive type writing and so the start of case making is there. For me, the notion of students as thought leaders and real world advocates was a new and promising consideration.
As I participated in the ICMA work with my Fluency cohort, I ventured out to see what other educators might be doing to promote youth voice. I read about Harvard’s Project Zero with specific interest in the “Agency by Design” project. I loved the tagline “Empowering Young People to Shape Their World.”
My Fluency cohort visit to Detroit to learn about Allied Media Project’s work with “Humanizing Schooling” convinced me of the importance of students connecting learning to their life. I loved the videos that the students created on the water crisis in Detroit. The honest stories regarding the purpose of education mural with troubled teens were inspiring.
Project Based Learning or PBL was another reoccurring result of my searching for what educators were doing. I agreed with the statement on Buck’s Institute for Education site, a site devoted to PBL, that “Projects enable students to solve problems and address issues important to them, their communities, and the world.”
So when the opportunity to learn more about PBL through a grant funded training arose, I immediately applied. It was a wonderful two days with other educators who care deeply about student success. Our summer work was followed by an externship visit with a Pittsburgh company and we had another group meeting to share with each other the things that future employers want in the individuals that they hire. We were asked to try PBL and report back.
Well, if I was going to try PBL in my teaching, of course, it needed to include the fundamentals of my Fluency experience. I decided that a project using the Speck monitors would include aspects of both technology and data fluency that I desired.
PBL has a central theme or focus and I chose the following: With the hope of optimal health for the AVSD community, what information about indoor air quality (IAQ) is valuable?” Because of my position supporting gifted students, I find myself frequently reading the Pennsylvania standards for English Language Arts and mathematics. I knew that many aspects of PBL work had a place to help students develop their proficiency in English Language Arts.
I spoke with several members of the English department at my school and it seemed that 11th grade English was a good time and place for PBL work. The English teacher for juniors, Kelly McConville, was more than positive about working with me on this PBL. We quickly decided to work 100% inclusively which meant that we had learning support students and advanced students not in AP working side by side. This decision for 100% inclusion was an integral part of our planning. The idea that everyone’s ideas had value was paramount.
Since November, we have been meeting for “PBL Thursdays” and are about halfway through our project. We just completed first presentations and I am pleased with the level of student engagement. It is truly time consuming to plot and plan this PBL. I find that most of my time outside of school is devoted to thinking and creating materials for the next phase of our work. In terms of reflections, I am only just beginning.
In the grant reporting out process, I was questioned on how PBL, Speck monitors, and English class can go together. So, you can understand, please view our focus and standards document with this link.
Finally, the work going on with AVSD PBL was featured in this article regarding the grant funded training through ASSET, Inc.
As an educator, this experience has been one of highs and lows. I have felt fear at times. I know that my PBL partner, Kelly, shared her night time ruminations before the first presentations with me. For other educators, I think that honest communication about this emotional roller coaster from PBL is valuable. The true test of this adventure or edventure will be changes in the students’ skills and attitudes. My partner can evaluate the ELA skills. For my part, I have already given a pre-project survey regarding youth agency and plan to administer a post survey at the end of the year. It is my hope that these juniors view themselves as true agents for change in the world.