George Lucas Educational Foundation

#ThinkPossible: Finding my Student Voice

#ThinkPossible: Finding my Student Voice

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My first day as a teacher set the focus of my entire career in Education. Having been hired less than a week before the start of school, I was given the text books and schedule of courses to teach. I was excited to begin my career as a teacher. The first class was American Government. The students sat quietly in rows as I talked about the exciting historical journey we’d take through the year. At the end of my talk, I assigned reading homework with questions from the textbook. The work was to be completed over the weekend, so that we’d be ready for a thoughtful conversation on Monday.

A well-dressed young man raised his hand. “Yes! My first question,” I thought as I called on him to speak.

He spoke in a respectful and measured tone. “Mr. McCarthy, we don’t do homework on the weekends. That’s our time.” 

The rest of the class nodded in quiet agreement. In that moment, I knew I was in trouble.

During the first three years of my teaching career I struggled with the question of student motivation. Homework, classwork—any work was a challenge to get students to do. I tried things, like group work, guided notes, videos, class discussions, and extra-credit. I got creative and did an early form of project based learning and tried to get other teachers to co-grade assignments. One English teacher turned me down nicely with the suggestion that I should stick to History and leave English to the experts. My approaches were like wandering at night with cloud cover, trying to read a compass.

After three years of limited success, I resigned from my job, and went to graduate school to get certified to teach English, and to find answers to the question: What does it take to engage students in wanting to participate in their learning? My plan was to either find an answer or study to become a university professor.

During my first course, I met professor Dr. Jere Holeman. He became my compass for two years as I sought answers. I learned how to become an ethnographer, which helped me to learn how to observe practice without judgement. He invited me to study one of his courses as an ethnography. I sat in the classes to watch the dynamics of his instruction and the students’ participation. I conducted interviews of students and the professor. From these experiences of Ethnography and self-reflection of my own journey, I found the first of many important bread crumbs about student voice and the important relationships between teachers and students.

I realized that teaching and learning cannot happen without the involvement of the teacher and the learner. When the teacher tries to control the instruction, the message to students is, “You will do this work my way.” Good learning experiences happen when the teacher includes students in the dialog of how they can develop the skills (Readiness), how the learning experience might look like (Interests), and what ways they can demonstrate their learning (Learning Preferences). In later years I would learn from Carol Ann Tomlinson and Susan Allan the language of Differentiated Instruction, which gave me much needed language.

On graduating with a Master Degree in English and a new found understanding of what motivates students, I had a decision to make: Go for a Ph.D. or return to the classroom. The choice was easy once I realized that I needed to put theory into practice. My teaching experiences improved as I followed true north on my compass: Student voices matter and need to be involved in the learning decisions.

With all my experiences with Differentiation and innovative practices that support student voice like Authentic Learning Experiences and Project Based Learning, I continue to seek out mentors and to learn from the professionals who I teach and coach. Whenever I think I have things figured out, I recall the student from my first day of teaching.

“Mr. McCarthy, we don’t do homework on the weekends. That’s our time.”

Student voice is about convincing and supporting a student’s view for how to make their time worth spending on learning. Then, anything is possible.


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Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA's picture
Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA
Advocate, Lawyer, Teacher and Founder of Beyond Tutoring

I really enjoyed hearing your journey in and out of the classroom and how it formed your ideas about student voice and choice. I liked seeing how your teaching perspective was formed and informed. Thank you for sharing.

A line that will stick with me is, "My teaching experiences improved as I followed true north on my compass: Student voices matter and need to be involved in the learning decisions."

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Katie,
Thanks for the affirmation. I think that understanding student voice is the doorway to engaged learning, and Differentiation is the key to unlocking a gold era of achievement. :)

Marco Trujillo's picture

Shouldn't we grade their essays, do lesson planning, etc during the weekends?
I think that tells alot about commitment and of course, as you said: motivation. The thing is not to motivate them but to turn extrinsic motivation into intrinsic, at least that is what experience has taught me so far.

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