Student voice in learning is a reoccurring topic for me. At every workshop I do, voice becomes an integrated action item that teachers grapple with. This was the case during my sessions at the PBL World Conference in Napa, CA. Fostering student voice is a critical key to enabling them to effect their learning experiences.shutterstock_97877219

The concept of student voice presented itself in realtime for me with an incident while on my way home from the conference — at San Francisco International Airport’s security line. It shed a light about communication = voice. Or in this case,

communication ≠ voice.

A mother struggled with her 5 year-old son in front of me at the security check. I don’t know why the boy was upset. Perhaps he was antsy or a little cranky. Of course, what 5 year old wouldn’t be antsy from the excitement of an airplane trip or cranky from being anywhere at 5 a.m.? I know that I was tired from getting up too early in the morning.

As the boy bawled, his harried mother seemed to talk to herself about how the 5 year-old’s behavior could repeat itself each time they came through the airport. I wondered what went through the boy’s mind? For him to reacts so strongly with tears, what were his unsolicited thoughts about the “airport trips” or the security line? Could the simple truth be that the mother’s emotions were affecting the son? It reminded me of being a teacher coming to work each day. It’s so important for educators to put themselves into a positive and supportive frame of mind when meeting with students. Students may come to school antsy, cranky, stressed or even upset about baggage from home. So how we treat them can either put them at ease or cast grease on fire. Students respond well to their needs being understood and when their voice is respected.

With the 5 year-old in full crying mode, the mother asked for his backpack. The crowded security line moved slowly as security people shouted reminders about emptying pockets, shoes and belts off, and laptops placed in a separate bin. The noise probably did not help matters for the boy or his Mom. He gripped his backpack, twisting back and forth like a running back protecting the football from a defense looking to force a fumble. Only in this case, there was only the mother. Time must have felt short standing by the conveyor belt–Faces, and some stares, everywhere. Without words or explanation of purpose or need, she pulled the pack from his clinging hands and placed it on the conveyer belt. Watching the bag move away from him, the boy cried harder and tried to grab for the bag. The mother blocked his every move. He seemed to think that the pack was going somewhere without him. In this case, that was partly true. When it disappeared into the x-ray box it seemed like the boy was forlorn. Once through his own security mini-cave, he sought out his pack, fingers clinging to the grill that prevented him from his prize.  Could this entire scene have been avoided if the boy was told what happens to the bag as it traveled into the x-ray box? Would he be reassured if told that he’d be rejoined to it on the other side of the security checkpoint? If his antsy behavior was recognized as a need for understanding and acknowledged as legitimate concern, could his energy been channeled without hard words or silent reproach? Perhaps if the boy was allowed to share his thoughts about the trip and was allowed to help put the bag on the conveyor belt, he might have behaved differently.

In schools, teachers get to know their students. The good teachers use that knowledge to help students to play a constructive role in their learning. Sometimes this feels hard when time is short and students ignore our “authority.” Sometimes it appears easier to try controlling a student’s behavior by denying them their voice as an equal partner in problem solving the issues or collaborating on productive end. Sir Ken Robinson offers a great gardening metaphor about teachers nurturing students:


Unfortunately, there are some adults who knowingly press a student’s buttons, which escalates negative drama until the young person has a predictable explosive reaction.. Yet the resulting work is much more difficult and can spin widely out of anyone’s “control.” Everyone loses in that situation

During the Differentiated Instruction workshop, the participants explored how students’ lives outside of school become important data for supporting them in the classroom. One elementary teacher shared a story about one of her students. During work she noticed that a boy was not paying attention. He was drawing pictures that depicted anger towards himself and his home life. When she tried to engage him into the work he was unresponsive. She then asked him, “What would you like to do right now?” He wanted to learn about legends. So she focused the lesson on legends. The boy actively participated with the rest of the students, and the learning objectives were still met.shutterstock_97781975-1

Crisis averted.

Allowing the student to have a say in what he needed was a critical awareness. Also powerful was the teacher’s adaptability and openness to foster the student’s voice to bring him into the learning. Think of what future ripples of effect that could come from that experience for the boy, and the unspoken message to the rest of the students.

Communication = Voice

But only if the relationship matter…