Right Time to Empower Student Voice

Photo credit to Bill O'Leary, The Washington Post
(Photo credit to Bill O'Leary, The Washington Post)

Whether protesting on the streets of Washington, DC or through social media, the voices of youth are being heard. Students are increasingly showing adults the depth of their ideas, as well as their attention to and investment in the world around them. Recognizing this, it is heartening to see that a growing number of teachers are focused on leveraging student voice in their classes in an effort to drive engagement and deeper learning. This idea was not always widely valued.

I saw evidence of this pedagogical shift in November at a CityBridge Foundation event where they were showcasing their Education Innovation Fellowship. The Innovation Fellowship supports Washington, DC educators to pilot personalized learning models in their classrooms. At the event, these teachers shared insights from the year-long fellowship. Several of them led presentations about the importance of empowering student voice and choice in their learning trajectory. The audience’s reaction affirmed how much this principle resonated and made me reflect on my own journey regarding student voice and choice in the classroom.

A decade earlier, I came to the conclusion that the gateway to student achievement was engagement. Accomplishing this, I believed, was rooted in empowering student voice and offering choice in their learning topics. While teaching at the SEED Charter School in Southeast DC, a colleague and I created a program that empowered students to select cultural and global issues that were important to them as the content anchor of a rigorous research, writing, and presentation project. From the beginning, we observed improvement in classroom engagement and work completion, and more so for students who were typically reluctant to write and share their ideas.

Despite widespread positive responses from students, this idea was not well received by all. A prominent writing instructor suggested that teachers would not want students writing about different topics. A local education blogger shared that our work moved students away from reading complex text. Their critique held validity, but overlooked a core value that these CityBridge teachers shared with their peers ten years later: there is no learning if students are not engaged, and blending student ideas and perspectives with real evidence is how we leverage a learner’s passion and interest with academic content. Although One World Education, the nonprofit that evolved from this classroom project at SEED, has been successful, a greater success is that empowering student voice and choice is becoming mainstream.

Over the last few years, organizations like Edutopia and the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) have published blog series on this topic. For teachers of all subjects, class exercises such as Socratic Seminars, Fishbowls, and Spider Discussions serve as gateway activities for empowering student voice. However, training and intentionality are necessary when designing classroom projects that incorporate student voice and self-direction.

Ultimately, creating classrooms where teachers can empower student voice and choice requires structure and trust. This starts with creating and feeding a culture around equity and community. Kudos to the CityBridge Foundation Education Innovation Fellowship for pushing teachers to explore, practice, and improve the most effective learning strategies for their students. Their students will benefit, and believe me, they have a lot to say!

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