George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Amplify Student Voice: Listen

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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Six teenage students and a teacher are talking. They're sitting in a circle in chairs brought to the center of their classroom.

What do students know about school that teachers and administrators don’t?

Plenty. That was one clear takeaway from a student panel discussion at the recent ISTE 2016 conference in Denver, where thousands of adults gathered for professional learning. A handful of students, meanwhile, raised issues about bullying, drug use, discrimination toward LGBTQ youth, and dissatisfaction with lessons that have little connection to real life.

“I just graduated from high school, and I don’t know the first thing about making a budget, writing a resume, or doing my taxes. I wish school had taught me those things,” one panelist said.

Bringing students into conversations about school change is the goal of a student-led effort that has grown from a twitter chat (#stuvoice) into a national movement called Student Voice. Student Voice founder Zak Malamed (@zakmal) moderated the ISTE panel. “Students need to feel more comfortable sharing the stories that you don’t hear in student government,” he says. “It’s not easy to create structures that allow all student voices to be heard.”

Malamed, a high school student when he started #stuvoice, just graduated from the University of Maryland. (Read more about him in "Leaders Can't Wait to Take Action.") He knows that his organization is not the first to focus on student voice. “We didn’t invent this,” he acknowledges, “but there’s no narrative yet around what works when it comes to student voice. It’s starting to develop,” he adds, with his organization taking a lead on gathering and sharing stories from students. The next challenge is to “connect everyone doing this work to scale best practices.”

From listening to hundreds of students talk about their own education, Malamed recognizes that students “don’t know what we don’t know” when it comes to reimagining policies, technologies, academic standards, or pedagogies. “Why aren’t schools teaching the history of education? Why aren’t we more transparent about why we learn what we do in school? It’s hard for students to articulate solutions,” he adds, “if all they know is their own experience with school.”

How to Listen

To expand the conversation and help ideas cross-pollinate, Student Voice is conducting a national listening tour this year. Andrew Brennen, national field director for Student Voice, has facilitated discussions with students in diverse contexts from Philadelphia to Iowa to Kentucky. “Students are a huge, untapped resource to help reimagine a model of school that’s 100 years old,” Brennen says. “Questions about developing student agency and critical thinking are becoming more important.” Yet even schools that deliberately teach critical thinking, he adds, “teach students to think critically about everything at school except school itself.”

When Brennen sits down with students for a roundtable discussion, he leads with an open-ended question: What can you tell me about school that teachers and administrators don’t know?

“The immediate response is almost always silence,” he says, or sometimes nervous laughter. The first answers that bubble up tend to stay on the surface, such as complaints about school lunches or too much homework. Once students get past the easy answers, though, profound and sometimes heartbreaking stories start to emerge. Brennen has heard students share, “I know kids who go home and do drugs with their parents.” Or, “I can tell you who’s bringing knives to school because they’re afraid.”

Students also say they welcome opportunities to make learning more personal. For example, when it comes to project-based learning, Brennen says, “Outcomes will be better if students buy in at the project design phase vs. just at implementation.”

For schools that want to facilitate their own student voice conversations, Brennen recommends having students take the lead. “The roundtable is not a place for adults,” he says. Rather than having adults select participants for initial conversations, invite diverse participation, and welcome those whose voices are not typically heard.

Next Steps

What happens after a listening session? That depends on local context, but here are a few strategies to consider:

Storytelling: Share students’ stories across multiple platforms. Student Voice helps to amplify stories on social media and also partners with traditional media outlets to get stories to broad audiences. Some schools have started student voice clubs or host local storytelling events. How does your school amplify student voices?

Partnerships: Engage students as partners in school change efforts. That might mean students playing a role in professional development, serving on focus groups, occupying school board seats, or participating in hiring decisions.

Recognize Student Rights: To ensure that student voice goes beyond lip service, get your school involved in the Student Bill of Rights. This is an initiative started by Student Voice that asks students to vote on issues that matter to them, and then take action to ensure that their rights are being upheld. For example, students might choose to focus on their right to “an education that caters to learning differences.” They can learn how other schools are upholding that right and connect with resources to guide their work.

How are you amplifying student voice at your school? Please help to grow this conversation in the comment section below.

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Karina Gracia's picture
Karina Gracia
High school history teacher

I really appreciate the input on amplifying students' voices , through listening. I think a lot of time educators can appear more of a an instructor, and not much of a listener. At such, I do agree that in order to make education more personal, we need to have students develop their own professional development with student agencies and critical thinking, with the ideas of: "reimaging, policies, technology, academic standards or pedagogies." Nonetheless, the more we develop not just student-centered classrooms, but school-centered ones, the more educators and administrators can better develop on their interpersonal skills to encourage students to become high achievers with a recognized school, they can be proud of.

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