Encouraging students to use their voices to speak up for themselves and others has always been a part of my practice. This year, however, it is even more important that students have opportunities to speak and be heard, given how isolated many are due to remote learning.
When you teach in the hybrid model, as I do currently, it can be particularly tricky to make sure that the in-person and remote students feel equally comfortable speaking up. After we return to full in-person instruction, I will continue to implement many of these strategies and assignments that encourage students to use their voices.
Making Space for Student Voice
Both remote and in-person students need space for their voices to be heard every day—and to know that someone is listening. Their perspectives may be shared aloud with the entire class or written in a chat, be expressed in a small group, or be part of a one-on-one discussion; the important thing is that their voices are acknowledged, no matter the context.
I’ve found that remote students are far less likely to voluntarily share than their in-person classmates, so I take time each class to direct questions only to remote students. This reminds them that they are part of the classroom community and gives them space to share. When most students return to in-person learning, this will be even more essential for the few who remain remote.
I consistently seek informal feedback from students (both remote and in person) about lessons, projects, and organization, as well as about how the class is going for them. I also provide regular opportunities for students to give formal feedback about the course through Google Form surveys and questions that I post in Google Classroom. Then I show them that I am listening to their input by making changes as needed. When making these changes, I take a moment to tell the students that the change was based on their suggestion; then they see that their input matters and continue to share their ideas.
In person, I am intentional about making eye contact with my students. They might not be able to detect the entirety of my facial expressions when we’re all wearing masks, but eye contact is extremely meaningful.
With respect to remote students, I always have my camera on and look at the computer screen when speaking to students who are online. My remote eighth-grade students are unlikely to turn their cameras on, but they can still see me, so it’s important that they see that they still have my full attention.
When I see real-world examples of young people making a difference, I share those with my students. In January, we watched Amanda Gorman’s inauguration poem, and I made an explicit point about how young she was and how powerful her voice was to the entire world. I reminded the students that she is only around eight years older than they are and encouraged them to never hold back their ideas because they think they are not old enough or important enough to make a difference.
I also recently shared the trailer for the upcoming documentary series Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World and discussed how she has significantly impacted climate science from a young age by using her voice.
I take care to craft units that tap my students’ voices, too.
In a Spotlight Challenge unit, my students have an opportunity to discover a passion, solve real-world problems, reflect on their strengths, research ideas, and create a call to action to encourage their peers to join them in bringing about positive change in their world. This year, students presented their speeches live in person when possible or over Google Meet.
Elevator Pitch is another unit that provides students with an opportunity to research facts and share their ideas about critical and current issues that are relevant to their lives in a safe environment. In the hybrid model, students filmed their 1-to-2-minute pitches at home and shared them with their peers through Google Meet.
Social Justice Statements is a unit that requires students to examine social justice through a historical and contemporary lens, synthesize the information, and create their own social justice statements. Students’ presentations are centered around their statements, such as the following: “Social justice can be achieved through small victories” and “Speaking up is the first step required to obtain justice.” To adapt for hybrid learning this year, all materials were posted digitally, and students created videos instead of live presentations.
Not everything I implement in my classroom will automatically make kids believe that their voice matters (or even that their voice matters to me), so I tell them, over and over again: “Your voice matters.” I tell them that they have the power to make a difference. I tell them that they are powerful. I tell them that I believe in them. I tell them their ideas can make our world a better place. I tell them that they inspire me.
Students need to see examples of kids their age speaking up and making a difference. Throughout the year, students are assigned independent reading. For one free reading assignment, students completed the following steps to turn their inspiration into action:
- Determine what compassion and understanding you gained from reading your book.
- Decide how you can take that compassion and understanding and turn it into action.
- Write a paragraph explaining what you could do to show compassion and understanding based on what you learned from the book. Then turn your words into action and carry out your idea, and then share your actions with your peers for extra credit.
Here are some YA and middle-schooler books that encourage students to think about how they can use their voices:
- Maybe He Just Likes You, by Barbara Dee
- Dress Coded, by Carrie Firestone
- The Assignment, by Liza Wiemer
- Voting Booth, by Brandy Colbert
- From the Desk of Zoe Washington, by Janae Marks
- The Last Bear, by Hannah Gold
- A Good Kind of Trouble, by Lisa Moore Ramée
- Anger Is a Gift, by Mark Oshiro
- Ban This Book, by Alan Gratz
- Front Desk, by Kelly Yang
- The Middler, by Kirsty Applebaum