Nurturing Student Voices

Voice is a powerful tool that cannot be silenced. During the Arab Spring of 20012 this was demonstrated in the way that Twitter was used to communicate among the protesters and with the world media. And as with other social media, it continues to have an impact. Wherever there is a place where voice and choice is stifled or controlled, people find back channels to communicate. Self expression occurs in many other ways.

  • Have a cause or business idea that you want to generate support for? These sites enables like-minded people to present a unified front (Change.org) or generate funding to start a business or concept (Kickstarter).
  • Product Reviews – Most cyber stores encourage consumers to post their ratings of products and/or services. Consider Yelp, Amazon, Good Reads, or Yahoo Movies. Anyone can post their opinion. And, the readers of the reviews can rate the reviewer for their content.
  • Many news sources and blogs provide comments about the article. Readers can join the conversation either by posting responses or using social network tools to “like” or forward an article to be shared with others, or an idea in Pinterest. Youtube brings messaging through a more media friendly and savy approach. Some of the most active communities for information exchange are the discussion boards for gaming.

The power of voice influence adult and children’s life in many ways.students5

Think about what can make a job fulfilling. It may the ability to determine how work gets done, the autonomy to plan and design work to reach a desired result. If I have expertise in an area, I’m encouraged or allowed to decide how to reach objectives. If I lack background knowledge I can choose how best to learn what I need to know, whether it be a seminar, videos, readings, study group, interviewing mentors, or a combination–all this through a global community via online networks and resources. Few people get their learning needs met by being a captive audience for a one-way presentation.

Yet this is what school life can be for students beginning in upper elementary and continuing through the levels of college degrees. Students are drivers of their learning when left to themselves. My kids coordinate groups for planning and construction of communities across different software platforms. How? They use their online networks of friends and experts (also known as strangers with knowledge), watch videos, and read posts on various discussion boards.  They willingly spend hours on these tasks and acquiring the requisite knowledge. That’s motivation. Often times educators struggle with the question of how to get students motivated to take responsibility for their academics, and fully participate in the work that will lead to them getting an education. “How do we motive students?” That’s the question that is debated and explored.students7

I think this is the wrong question.

Students, like adults, need avenues of voice that includes them as a partner or leader of their work. Rather than asking how do we motivate students to take responsibility of their learning, we should be asking, how do we give students voice? How do we, as educators, give up control, and facilitate support of students as they drive towards learning in whatever context that supports them? When we work “alongside” students, their learning deepens because the focus is on what they–as collegial partners–express their needs.

The reality is that when student voice is held secondary to what the educational system thinks, then they take their voice underground. The unspoken norms take over, such as completing assignments to check off a to-do list, rather than learning the concepts. Or, spending as minimal time as it takes to complete tasks so that they can spend hours doing the things that they love.

There are many ways to nurture student voice. Here are a few to consider…

  • Classroom Norms generated by the students
    Facilitate conversation where the students reflect on what makes for a positive and supportive learning community. Then have them generate a list of norms. The wording should be positive and focus on characteristics of the community they want to be part of. For example:
    – Every voice is valued and needed
    – Listening helps everyone to feel heard
    – Talk after 2 others share
  • Facilitate a student evaluation of an instructional activity, unit, or project
    Student feedback is valuable for knowing what worked or did not work for them. Do activities where they share what they liked, would suggest changed, and recommend eliminating. Teachers have many instructional tools. Some that work one year, may not the next. Best to know early in the year what is helping students learn.
  • Allow students to work at their own pace
    Students tend to be at different levels of skill and knowledge during any given unit of study. It’s about Differentiated Instruction (Resource site). Structure learning experiences so that advanced learners are working on complex work that will stretch their growth, and not doing work that’s the same as others–because it’s easier to manage. Have students who struggle get the scaffolds they need so that they can do interesting and complex work. Just know that on any given unit, different students will struggle and others will excel. When a student who struggles asks to do more challenging work, let them with support. Learners surprise us all the time in a good way when we give them the opportunity.

How do you nurture voices of young people in school–and outside of school?

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