What About Student Voice?
According to Thich Nhat Hanh, deep, compassionate listening has only one purpose:
‘to help another person empty his or her heart’
Creating a classroom environment where students and teacher really listen to one another in an atmosphere of acceptance and understanding may be considered idealistic.
But what are teachers if not idealists?
We come in to the profession for a variety of reasons underscored with the belief that we can make a difference in the lives of our students, leading to an impact on the local and global community.
Martha Caldwell, a teacher and author of Let’s Get Real: Exploring Race, Class and Gender Identities in the Classroom talks about the importance and positive impact of students being heard at school and in the classroom.
In my experience, one of the consistent elements identified by students as lacking from the school experience has been student voice.
This has often been addressed through student councils, student surveys and focus groups.
However, this can be tokenistic with many groups of students under-represented. Caldwell talks about a more wholistic view of student voice where all students feel safe to express themselves and discuss issues that arise at school.
When students feel safe, learning is optimised.
In my workshops, teachers often comment on the fact that they feel safe to express their views and be open to the views of others and it is in this environment that they can take risks and consider alternative ways to teach.
It is the same for your students. If they feel accepted and free to express themselves they are more likely to take risks with their learning. They will feel ok to say, “I don’t understand” or “I don’t get it” and to ask for help.
To develop a non-threatening classroom climate takes time, effort and effective, consistent practices.
1. Classroom meetings
Dedicating time to discuss issues that arise in the classroom contributes to a smooth-running class.
Giving students a forum to raise anything they see as an issue for them or the class means that they will feel that they have a voice.
Scheduling regular meetings and being committed to the time shows that you value their input.
What can happen in the busy school day is that ‘extra-curricular’ activities are the first to be bumped when time is tight.
2. SEL program
Having an effective social and emotional program in a school is essential to creating an environment where students feel heard.
An explicit SEL program provides students and teachers with the skills to express themselves, listen to others, self-regulate their emotions and behaviour, and build and maintain positive relationships.
In research by Durlak and Wiessberg, schools with a SEL program achieved higher results in standardised testing (not that this measure is the be-all and end-all) because the students had strategies for dealing with challenges in their learning.
They used positive self-talk when working on problems they found difficult and they were prepared to take risks with their learning.
3. Circle Time
One of the best ways to give students a voice is to use a structure where they have a voice.
Circle time is a process whereby all students are given the opportunity to speak and the expectation is for others to listen.
This process can be used for your classroom meetings, to problem-solve class issues, to support the SEL program and to deliver curriculum content.
4. Negotiate the learning
When you involve students in decision making about what they learn, how they learn and with whom they learn they feel empowered and engaged.
While teachers often feel that the designated curriculum imposes limitations on this process, there are ways that you can provide choice for your students.
Give them agency in how they access information, how they consolidate the learning and how they demonstrate their learning.
A human’s natural state is one of curiosity, but when students are forced to learn what others have decided i.e. rigid curriculum, in only one way i.e. lecture style and present their learning in one way i.e. written test or essay, it is easy to see why intrinsic interest or motivation is squashed.
5. Restorative Practices
One of the best ways to give students voice is to listen to them when they have been part of a relationship breakdown: when they have been harmed and when they have been the offender.
Conflict is a natural part of relationships and schools are ideally placed to teach children and young people how to navigate the world or relating to others.
Restorative Practices is based on the premise of giving all parties a voice, not simply to find out what happened, but to make every situation a learning opportunity where understanding, empathy and compassion are developed.
When you listen to the victims and the offenders or wrongdoers, you learn about what is going on for them, what contributed to the incident and what additional learning they need to move forward.
Being open to what students have to say can take courage because they may not say what we want to hear. But knowing what they think and how they feel means that we can make our classrooms adapt to the students needs, rather than students adapting to the classroom.
It’s about ‘engaging our students rather than containing them’!