George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Young boy speaking, almost hidden by the podium he's standing behind

Do you remember the days when all desks were in rows with the teacher's desk at the front of the room? No one sat closer to the front than the teacher. When a student came to the front of the room, it was only to read aloud, unless you were summoned for talking out of turn. Perhaps teachers now call students to the front to present projects. Maybe a teacher calls a student up to praise them in front of the class. Regardless of the reason for calling on students, it is the purpose of this action that we must reflect upon. Are we calling a student up to address negative behavior? Or are we calling them up to hear what they have to say and highlight their brilliance? Most importantly, are we calling them up so that every voice is heard?

Logistically, I can seat all students in a circle and focus on the physical space of my classroom. Or I can think a bit deeper and channel my own emotions when called to the front. Two years ago, I began the school year with the latter approach as I recalled what it was like to be singled out as a student. Quite honestly, I remember that nervous energy when called upon to read, and that occasional state of confusion when called up for talking in class -- it was never me talking (pinky swear). The discomfort I felt was often a hindrance to my reading performance, and if I was called to the front for talking, I went back to my seat mad at the world. In either instance, I don't recall equating that moment of teacher and class attention with any positive emotion. Perhaps it was the responses from my peers (clapping and hand-shakes) as I walked back to my seat that made me smile as my stomach settled. Positive teacher and peer responses to a student's action can be affirming and impactful for any student.

3 Practices

Thinking about my own experiences was a first step when contemplating how to encourage and support my students in using their voices at their own comfort levels. My most pressing concerns were related to my desire to shift the thinking about what it means and feels like to be called to the front. Allow me to share a few of the actions to help prepare for a new school year:

1. Don't Assume

Why does it matter to consider the students' diversity and interest while steering away from making assumptions? Your students' background (cultural and experiential) may drive how they approach opportunities to use their voice. For example, you wouldn't want to assume that your second-language learner despises physically talking from the front of the room and would prefer to use the class blog. Maybe he or she is looking forward to speaking to the class. Go beyond thinking about your students' diversity and interests, and ask questions to gain more accurate and useful data.

2. Remember Your Own Experiences

Why does it matter to draw from your own personal "at-the-front" memories? Checking your teacher bias is important, but you may be more like some of your students than you think. If you remember feeling anxious when asked to demonstrate something for the entire class, perhaps you will develop a new strategy for calling on students. Did you enjoy sitting at the front of the class? Maybe you have a student who feels more comfortable in a seat at the front of the room. I remember one student telling me that he felt more comfortable presenting to the class after practicing with his classmates. I anonymously polled the class on a different day and discovered that there were several other students who liked to practice with one another, but still felt uncomfortable presenting live. So I introduced video presentations to my class. Students enjoyed the video creation process and celebrated each other upon completion and when viewing their classmates' work.

3. Who Owns Student Voices?

I know you've heard this before: "Give students back their voice." Resist the idea of "giving back" something that never belonged to you. Why does this matter? First, we should question why we're accepting responsibility for students' apprehension to express themselves. Telling them that I'm giving them back their voices can also suggest that their voices belonged to someone else before them. That said, there are instances when we can block students from using their voice by making the mistake of limiting opportunities or assuming that we understand their preferences. Thinking about student voice as something that has always belonged to your students will shift how they begin to use their voices. As we create the spaces for students to choose when to use their own voices, they develop the courage to use all of what belongs to them already.

Tapping Into Positive Emotions

So today, calling students to the front means more than what you may imagine with our diverse student population. Although we can literally call students up to the front of the room, we no longer need to do it old-school style. We can tap into the positive emotions they feel when called to the front by offering spaces (physical and virtual) for them to use their voices. With a shift in purpose, we can call more than one student up at a time. If we call all students to the front, we amplify the sound of their voices. We all like the feeling of ownership, so grant them the respect and space to nurture one of their most powerful possessions -- their voice. Now is the time for calling all students to the front, please.

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Adam Buchbinder's picture
Adam Buchbinder
Passionate about teaching students with learning differences with empowerment, grit, and resilience

I particularly love your second point regarding the importance of empathizing with students. I still have vivid memories of being called up to the front of the class to read aloud (I was terrified). Most young teachers are not far removed from their own educational experiences and should absolutely use them to inform their own instructional practices. Sometimes even the most conscientious teachers fall into the trap of a social dynamic where teacher leads and student listens. But at our core, we are all human beings who have strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and passions. These transcend one's place in life. By putting ourselves in our students shoes, we engage in an important journey of positionality. Thank you for writing this wonderful piece.

Deborah Asher, Ed.S.'s picture
Deborah Asher, Ed.S.
Equity Advocate, Consultant, High School Principal, District Administrator, Teacher

Too often students feel, with good reason, that our system of education is something done to them. We have overlooked, underestimated, and devalued students' voices far too long. Until this changes we will continue to systematically extinguish the natural love of exploring and learning from our children in the name of education.

Nicol R. Howard, PhD's picture
Nicol R. Howard, PhD
Educator, Researcher, and Tech Enthusiast

Thank you, Adam, for sharing your experience. As you already know, I agree with you regarding the need to step into the shoes of our students. Self-Reflection and empathy are definitely key action steps in the teaching and learning process.

Nicol R. Howard, PhD's picture
Nicol R. Howard, PhD
Educator, Researcher, and Tech Enthusiast

My heart hurts when I walk in to classrooms that do not allow opportunities for student voice. You are truly right that we need to act now--before we silence the love of learning.

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