One of the most powerful ways to impact achievement is to actively engage students in the life of the classroom. Although educators know that our students’ contributions are vital to the learning process, educator and author Alexis Wiggins was surprised to observe that many students “feel like a bit of a nuisance all day long.” As teachers, we have the capacity to change our students’ experiences if we design lessons that prioritize student voice and participation.
Elevating student voice is critical for many reasons. For one thing, as Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey write, “The amount of talk that students do is correlated with their achievement.” There are strategies teachers can use to elevate student voice in order to strengthen relationships, foster a sense of belonging, increase engagement, and inform instruction.
Begin Class With a Welcoming Ritual
Students arrive to class with their minds swirling about failed quizzes, mounting pressure about homework assignments, and concerns about interactions with their peers. In order to help them clear these distractions from their minds, we might begin class with a predictable routine.
Students might share “breaking news” or “what’s on the top of your mind?” in pairs, with small groups, or with the whole class. This welcoming ritual allows students to release their most pressing thoughts and create space for new experiences. It also builds relationships between students as they share a little bit of themselves with their peers. Welcoming rituals foster a sense of belonging as the classroom becomes a place that accepts students not only for who they are but where they are at a particular moment.
This brief share might transition directly into an opening activity that connects to the learning of the day. Together, students might consider an essential question, share responses to a short quote or passage, or take time to reflect on the previous day’s learning. Opening class with an emphasis on student engagement rather than passive compliance prioritizes student voice and places students at the center of the learning experience.
Plan Consistent Opportunities for Student Voice
During the planning stage, prioritize active engagement and student voice by asking yourself:
- When will students collaborate to problem-solve, devise higher-order questions, contribute to the creation of a product, or otherwise actively grapple with a lesson’s meaning?
- How often are students offered the opportunity to speak at the front of the room, write on the board, or conduct demonstrations on the document camera?
- When are students writing for an audience beyond the classroom?
- Do students have choices regarding the work they’re doing?
- If (and in what ways) are students prompted to connect what they’re learning in the classroom to their lives outside of school?
Ideally, our classrooms would be places where students not only gain knowledge but also discover who they are and who they want to be. The only way students will come to these realizations is through both independent and collaborative explorations in which they add their voices to the conversation. Prioritizing student voice strengthens a sense of belonging, as the learning experiences are co-created by students and teachers.
Ask Students About Their Lives Beyond The Classroom
We need to show our students that we value who they are and understand the complexities of their lives. Some students will clearly make themselves known while others will fade into the background if we let them—so we need to intentionally interact with all students. These moments of listening and sharing with students reinforce belonging and build relationships.
We can do this while greeting students when they enter the classroom, while conferring with small groups, and while conferencing with individual students. We can schedule “lunch and learn” sessions or invite students to help us hang student work or otherwise contribute to the logistics of the classroom during their study halls or lunch periods.
When students know we value what they have to say, they’re more likely to share their thoughts and insights. It may seem like we don’t have time to engage with every student, but we don’t have time not to. As John Hattie reminds us, “A positive, caring, respectful climate in the classroom is a prior condition to learning.” Strong teacher-student relationships bolster students’ confidence to share their voices.
Ask for Student Feedback—and Use It
Another important way to elevate student voice is to ask for feedback. As much as we wish we could, we will never know what it really feels like to be a student in our classrooms, and our students hold many of the answers we seek. We can ask them for feedback throughout the year and (when feasible) implement their suggestions. Student feedback not only informs instruction, it conveys that we value their insight, and that their voices are at the center of the work that we do.
When we listen to and honor our students, we can show them that their voices can be powerful instruments of learning for themselves and others—and levers of change in their classrooms and beyond.