I say "student voice," and you hear a lot of things. Some people hear a music component, some hear discipline, others hear political activism.
Some just hear white noise.
This is last one concerns me. I am not a fan of insider talk or jargon, because it can alienate those not initiated to the terminology. It becomes white noise. I don't want people to lose sight of the powerful things happening in student voice- so I need to define what I mean when I say it.
In my classroom and my observations of other educators' work in student voice, I have identified four levels: student talk, student inquiry, oracy, and empowerment. I'd like to take this opportunity to check these levels- and clear up any fuzziness about student voice.
I think many teachers hear "student voice" and this image comes to mind:
Honestly, that's what I thought it was when I started this journey. Student voice equaled engagement in my mind- that was the goal. But I've discovered that getting students to talk- to engage- is just the beginning. It's no higher than level 3 on the dial.
But its still student voice, it is still important. My students often report classes where they don't get to or don't attempt to talk. They report that classes where they get to talk, even if it is only to respond to direct questions, are still more engaging than straight lecture. The reason that the level of student voice is low for student talk is because it lacks depth. It's not about the student analyzing and interpreting, just communicating and trying out answers. So, let's turn it up a level.
If student talk is about answering questions, inquiry is about students asking the questions. Here, students create questions, problems, and scenarios and pose these questions to themselves and each other. The student led discussions I start my class with are often at this level of student voice- up to a level 5. I've seen Dan Meyer talk about students designing math questions for their peers, and I image it's a small step to students designing experiments in their science classes.
Here, the levels begin to mix, some students inquire, others talk- but the basic engagement now begins to add up to a fuller sound, a more robust voice experience.
Ah, now we're talking!
Students are asking and answering their own questions and it is...chaos?
That is what some teachers fear- "I loose my grip on the class and it goes off topic, or the students don't actually listen to each other and no learning happens."
Enter oracy, and we go to level 8.
Oracy is defined by Merriam Webster as "proficiency in oral expression and comprehension." Why does that matter in math or science? Because if we can learn to be proficient in our math and science talk,we can gain deeper understanding, just like in language arts, debate and social studies.
But I still come back to how School 21 in England defines oracy, in this video:
I remind you- those are elementary students.
Our political leaders do not speak that respectfully or artfully.
Now imagine what you could do if your classes successfully combined talk, inquiry and oracy!
To paraphrase Spinal Tap, "Let's turn it up to 11!"
That is empowerment. Students talk with each other, ask the questions, communicate with skill and now we give them a chance to do something with it. Invite them to sit on school committees, have them write their politicians, gain an audience with the administration and school board.
And then we listen. And then we respond.
And then we are changed.
See, if student voice gets turned all the way up, there will be change. There will be innovation.
We must not fear student empowerment, but embrace it.
Our classrooms should be laboratories that develop leaders and let them test their skills. Student voice is how we do it. And there is no better place to explore the road to empowerment than our classrooms- we can guide the students so that they use their voice not in selfish ways, but in ways to help others. Student voice creates collaboration, unity, and a family. And we will raise the level of voice together, as our students learn to count and analyze and read and argue and learn from the past and create with open minds and words from the heart.
Let's raise the volume!
Over my teaching career, I have had a lot of observers. Administrators, teachers from my campus, teachers from other campuses, college student observers, Central Office administrators. On Friday, I had the most important observer I've ever had.
My 12 year old daughter Leslie.
She woke up with a migraine, and since neither her mother or I could really miss that day, we decided she could come to my class since it had low lights, and see if that could help. Fortunately, it did, and before long, Leslie felt well enough that I made a suggestion- why don't you take notes on the classes, and tell me what you think.
Boy, did she.
For each class, she made observations on student engagement, student behavior, and measured student understanding. Throughout the blog, I will post pictures of her notes- with class designates removed. Since most of these notes were about the students, I wanted to take the chance with this blog to get her thoughts on me as a teacher, and the classroom environment and culture as a whole. Here are the responses:
Me: Alright Leslie, let's start- what where your thoughts on the physical design of the classroom- seating, lights, smells, and stuff?
Leslie: I think that it can make kids feel more at home like with the couches and the comfy chairs, rather than in a classroom with desks and regular chairs. I think that flexible seating helps students focus because the pick where they sit so they can see better and hear better. I like it better because after a little bit you can get sore and lose focus because it's an uncomfortable seat.
Me: OK, so you also saw the Coffee Talk- our student led discussion. What did you think about that?
Leslie: I think that it's a smart idea to let the kids recap what they have already learned about, then tell the other kids to tell the leader something they like about them.
Me: Why is it important to let the students recap, instead of just doing review questions that people do individually, like in regular bell work?
Leslie: I think that it's better than bell work because you can say what you want to say with more emotion rather than writing it on paper.
Me: We are also doing the positive "Say something nice" version. Did this work, and why do you think it is important to tell each other nice things about each other?
Leslie: I think it is important because it can help people feel confident in them self and i do think it works very well.
Me: You saw classes of debate and Psychology- did you think the students and I connected well regarding the lessons- did they understand what they were supposed to?
Leslie: I saw that y'all understood what each other were trying to say, and the way you worded your questions helped the students understand what you were asking.
Me: Would you say the students had a lot of say in what and how they learned, or did I just tell them?
Leslie: I think they had it in control and you just help move the conversation along and keep them on track.
Me. Alright, so here is the toughest thing I am going to ask you- as a teacher- how did I do? Also, what did I do that you DID like, and what did I do that you DID NOT like? Be honest!
Leslie: You did a good job as a teacher, I would definitely want to have you as one of my teachers. I liked how you would try to get to everyone who had their hand up and then try to get to people who didn't have their hand up. Maybe something you could work on is trying something like a hand motion or chant to get the students attention.
Me: In your opinion- what makes a class a good class to be in? If you could tell your teacher 3 things that would help you learn more effectively, what would they be?
Leslie: The 3 things to help me learn more effectively would be flexible seating because I like pick where I can sit so I can be more focused, the second thing is the teacher being able to laugh with the students about something they said or did or anything like that, and the third thing is making the class laugh at a story that happened to them or in their lives or at a video or something like that. Something that would make a class a good class to be in would be to let the kids tell the class (if they want to) about something that happened to them whether it be something good or bad.
I believe strongly in the power of student voice- even when the student is my own child. I must admit, I was a bit nervous asking her to share- I had no idea whether or not she'd like my class or me as a teacher.
But that isn't the point, anyway. The biggest point to make here is this- students of any age can and should have a voice in how their classes work. That is student voice, that is student empowerment.
Ever been so wrapped up in your own head and your own self that you missed what was going on with others? Ever done something that benefited you, but disenfranchised another? Ever taken the easy way out, knowing it wasn't the best for students? Or your peers?
I'm finding myself in a place of a bit of conviction about pride, selfishness and arrogance. As an educator, that is a horrible trifecta.
We've all had selfish days. Many of us have ambition, but can sometimes forget Education is about relationships- and ambition must never trump relationships- I am sorry for sometimes forgetting that.
I am eager to grow as an educator and I believe in the methods I use to reach students. In my zeal, I may come across as arrogant- I am sorry.
I have been impatient with students and hypocritically slow to respond at times. This is me putting myself before students- I am sorry.
If if I have missed your request for aid, or not given you the time you need, or acknowledged your concern- I am sorry.
I share this this because I am coming to recognize that as I seek to increase student voice, I need to model transparency and honesty. I have come to feel that I have fallen into habits reflected in the confessions above, and I wanted to express my regret because teaching is collaborative with our peers, and with our students. Pride and selfishness get in the way of that.
So my goals from here on are simple- be present for my fellow educators and my students. Be patient, and be humble. And when I am not- seek forgiveness. And if I am unaware, kindly accept an admonition.
We grow through reflection and coaching, but it doesn't just have to be about instructional methods.
It it can be about character, too.
Here are the final two components of the CREATE ClassroomL Timely Relevance and Environment. These two vlogs explain how to connect content with students in a relevant manner and how to design a physical and cultural environment that fosters collaboration and openness.
In chapter 6 of George Couros' Innovators Mindset, he opens by sharing a story of a cab ride with a deaf cab driver. He relates how he engaged the cab driver through gestures and careful mouthing of "Thank you" to close their ride. He then tells of a story of another cab ride, and another deaf cab driver, but this rider used YouTube to learn how to sign "Thank you." (Couros, 2015).
This story shows the difference between engagement and empowerment.
Couros goes on to argue- and I totally agree- that this versus is not like Batman Vs Superman where one is clearly better. (Batman) No, this versus is more about what they look like, what is the difference, and how do they actually work together(Couros, 2015).
My CREATE Classroom, Didactic Cafe, was created to increase student engagement. More conversations, more peer interaction, less napping and Snapchat. That was accomplished pretty quickly via Coffee Talks, our student led discussions that start each class. Engagement regularly runs at around 80-90%- which was my goal. These are daily shoulder taps and mouthing words like Couros did for his cab driver.
But are my students empowered?
Couros also relates that another versus exists: school vs learning. He argues that school seeks answers, learning seeks questions (Couros, 2015).
Coffee talks are student led- so the students are coming up with the questions- which is technically empowerment. Students are now taking discussions in class to administrators- mostly about dress code- but they are taking their voice outside of class. They are also taking ownership of their learning in other classes and with their personal time outside of class.
These are all things that have been happening all year in my class. But there is still a place where empowerment is needed.
Civility and open discourse.
We live in a time where civility and open discourse are hard to find. Our students see that, and often ask me what they can do. The answer to that starts with me asking- what can I do?
1. What should I do next?
I had already planned to try this, starting tomorrow, but I am waiting to write details until after I have run a few days of it. The plan is- Coffee Talk will be used in my debate classes to build each other up. The "facilitator" sits at the front of the room, and the rest of the class shares what they like about that person and/or what inspires them about that person. A little social emotional connection to empower each other with peer support.
2. Where could I use this again?
I want to see how this works, but I definitely see potential for it to roll out in Psychology classes to increase support and ultimately collaborative learning. I want to see, after a few iterations, what other benefits it could have.
3. What is important about it?
It builds a culture of support and collaboration. My students know that communication in society is not civil or kind- but this has the potential to empower them to make a change- to look for the good in each other. I believe this will lead to a more collaborative and supportive culture for classes, which will lead to more extended and impactful learning.
4. My goal?
I want to see my students see their safe place is not my room's physical structure. I want them to see the safe place is each other, and me as their facilitator of learning. I want to see students love learning, and feel safe to ask those questions that lead to empowered learning.
I plan to share more of this "positive" Coffee Talk soon. I look forward to seeing where it leads!
There once was a politician that prided himself on being a man of the people. He volunteered at soup kitchens, visited the sick, spoke at rallies for important issues, and donated to causes that helped the downtrodden. People respected him, because he appeared to be a man of integrity, a man who listened to his constituents. He spoke often of the "Power of the People" and the beauty of representative democracy.
One day, there was a big vote looming. The politician had made up his mind, and was prepared to vote. His constituents had their own opinion- and it was in opposition to the politician's planned vote. They wrote emails, called his office, sent letters- thousands of them!
But the politician did not listen to the people. He felt that- on this issue- he knew what was best. Even though he knew there might be validity to their concerns, in the end, he KNEW that his vote was the right one, and the people would ultimately thank him for it.
He was voted out the next term.
Voice is powerful.
But when voice is ignored, when voice is not given opportunity to exercise its power- is it really still voice?
We are currently in a time when people share their voice constantly- social media, protests, and we just had a big election. The availability of ways to share our voice is at an all time high. We can interact with our leaders in Google Hangouts, like or express anger on Facebook, and follow on Twitter. We can post open letters, instantly email, and there is still good old fashioned mail and face-to-face.
But I dare say we feel less and less like we are heard.
I recently saw the very scenario above play out- minus the ending. A politician expressed their position, THOUSANDS of people emailed, called, and responded to his Facebook post, all in opposition to his stance. He voted that way anyway. I expressed my voice, but felt ignored.
Now, let's look at my classroom.
A few weeks ago, I was overseeing a Coffee Talk- our student led discussion- and it was over dress code. Again. See, I think the dress code is fine and necessary- and really not that bad at our school. I went to a school where guys could not have facial hair. One of my friends was folically advanced, and would shave before school, then be asked to shave again by lunch. So, having to wear something over your leggings is not so bad to me.
Anyway, in the course of the conversation, I was defending the dress code, and students kept disagreeing, not seeing the point of dress code. I felt my opinions hardening and my mindset setting. Then a student said this "Sometimes I feel shamed when I get dress-coded."
That got through. I immediately stopped and realized that I was failing to hear my student's voice because my opinion differed. I told my students that while I still agreed with dress code- if any student feels shamed by our actions, we need to take notice of our practices.
Let us not be the politician in the parable- so sure we are right, that we know what is best, and silence our students' voices. Student voice is not just letting our students talk and share ideas, it is also helping them see that their voice can have impact. Sometimes, their ideas cannot happen, but if they can, are we working to see them find a way to implement their ideas?
I am sure that we all hear our students' voices- but our we listening to them? Are we providing them opportunities to work out their voice, their vision, their dreams? Or are we deciding that we know best, and their valid concerns will go away when we do what we KNOW is best?
They cannot vote us out like the politician, but we can still lose them.
My campus has Cougar Cabinet- where voice matters and practical opportunities to work it out exist. At least one campus in our district has students sit with interview committees for new hires. Teachers encourage students to write to their representatives or even get involved in the political process through volunteering. And fine arts teachers are constantly finding ways for students to display their voice.
Voice is not voice if it is just heard, it must be listened to, and students need to see that we are willing to act on it. Even if we are not able to always do what they want, they can see we listen. And there is a difference- hearing is just registering a sound is made. Listening takes the words and thinks on them, sits with them and lets the weight of the voice impact us.
When I told my students that I would definitely be thinking about my own practices when it came to how I approached discipline- the were appreciative. "See, that's why I like Lehrmann, he listens to us."
We often complain that our students- and our own children-do not listen to us.
Are we listening to them?
When I was in high school, I had a teacher named Mr. Reynolds. He would give us projects instead of tests, and would always say "In the real world, they are not going to sit you down on a Tuesday and give you a test."
That was 20 years ago.
Two days ago, I took my principal exam. Two days ago I heard a teacher relate that during her student shadowing experience her student had numerous tests and quizzes back to back. Every day I hear students talk about taking tests. Texas' new A-F Accountability is almost entirely based on STAAR test results, so almost every day, teachers feel a pressure- if not from administrators then from themselves- to address the test.
In the real world, they may not sit you down on a Tuesday and give you a test, but the test is everywhere.
Let's be real for a second- we need assessment. We need to evaluate learning so we can identify strengths and weaknesses and set the course for future learning.
But does it half to be true/false, multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank?
After my test and the discussion about how often students are tested, I took a question to my students- "If you could design your own assessments, what would they look like?"
Their responses were surprising, and at the same time, not. They relied on experiential assessment- activities and verbal communication and presentation. I have shared their ideas below, with some commentary.
Teach a lesson-
The students said that teaching their peers a lesson would demonstrate a greater depth of understanding than any written test could. They say it would allow them to demonstrate their learning, and even allow them to create questions for the class to review learning. I have used this in my US History classes and in Communication Applications. For the History class, the students had to cover content in the TEKS, but for Comm Apps, the standards were the presentation itself. The creativity and depth the students went to were even greater than they expected. If you want to talk about students owning their learning- this has got to be a part of the conversation.
Students said they have had some exams where the teacher questions you directly and in front of the class. Other times, the questioning is done privately. Labs allowed for practical knowledge to be actually applied, and demonstrations were helpful to learners who may struggle with the written word and complex written sentence structure but could eloquently present their understanding in a presentation. Students added that verbal assessments in general go deeper than memorization and also provides for group building. One student shared an experience where the verbal presentation missed something, and a student they had never interacted with offered consolation because "It happened to me, too." On the depth greater than memorization, the students said that presenting the ideas or performing the labs demonstrated a practical, and personal, understanding of the content.
Class discussions/Group Interactions
When students work together in groups, collaboration builds skills beyond the content. Students have to learn to work with differing personalities and bring different views together for cohesive presentation. Real world skills were prized in this view, and students said that class discussions can also lead to increased learning- but the assessment piece may be a little more difficult to pull off as a summative assessment, but as a formative or even a check for understanding, it is a powerful tool.
No paper, use demonstrations and movement. Imagine a test where you move around the room- stations that provide different forms of assessment. Visual, auditory, kinesthetic- one test, multiple modes of assessment. Science seems a natural fit, but most content areas use stations in some form or another, so adjusting stations to work as assessments is possible.
In closing, a few observations.
I asked my debate classes, so I was concerned that the high level of verbal assessment responses was skewed by the sample, but students did not feel this was unique to a debate class or communication minded students as they had heard this request from friends not in the class.
Some students felt that STEM classes needed a written test, or a lab. Others argued that verbal and project presentations were still viable means of assessment because scientists have to present their findings.
This observation hurt me a little. Students said they had had this same conversation about alternative forms of assessment in a bunch of classes- but nothing ever changes.
Ouch. When we say we listen to our students, and they say we aren't- this is why. Sure, we talk with them, but do we try to implement? Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't, but our students see that nothing ever changes.
You know what- twenty years ago, Mr. Reynolds had a mind to change things, but today, the landscape of assessment looks startlingly similar. Maybe our students are right- assessments will always look like they do now.
But I challenge my fellow educators to evaluate their evaluations of student learning with the same vigor they grade their tests. Can we do better- can we listen and implement changes?
I believe we can!
I believe there is a soundtrack to our lives.
I love music- and though I cannot play or sing very well, I have strong opinions about music. I have strong opinions because music inspires me and challenges me. It acts as a muse when I think and write and create, a salve when I hurt, and a lyrical voice for my passions when my tongue cannot speak clearly.
But I find a lot of modern music is missing something.
We we live in an age where music is edited and auto-tuned to a point where the voice is lost. What we have is "perfection," but not personal. Not powerful.
The Beatles were not perfect- but their music sticks with you. U2 has soaring ballads that reasonate not just because they hit the notes, but because Bono's raw wailing hits your soul. Joe Cocker's voice may not be pretty, but he makes you feel the miles on his life. Watching Garth Brooks in concert isn't great because he hits perfect pitch, it's great because you hear the joy in his art. Heart may be an 80's band, but they are able to connect you to their struggles through voices that take risks.
So yeah, I sound like an old guy.
Taylor Swift is talented, so are the boys from One Direction. I'm on the fence about twenty one pilots. I like thief music.
But it I don't feel it the way I do the other stuff. It doesn't haunt me.
In today's schools, students strive for perfection. They want greatness, and that is admirable. But they are missing something. They do not see the beauty in their imperfections. Because in our schools, perfection is regurgitating what they heard. Perfection is correct answers and high scores.
But we lose their voice.
That imperfect spelling, that poorly placed infinitive, that backwards 6. These reveal the heart of the student- these reveal the journey. No doubt, we want to correct those mistakes, but maybe we should take a moment and enjoy the rawness our students are letting out- that little bit of insight into who they really are.
My oldest daughter used to say "librarium" and my youngest called crayons "crowns." I tried to correct them some, but my wife smiled and told me to stop. That wouldn't last forever, so enjoy the imperfection because it revealed their innocence.
I miss librariums and crowns today.
When I hear the crack of emotion in a singers voice, or the fluency break in a student, I want to enjoy the reality revealed there. I connect with the person in their humanity, and their journey.
I find beauty in their imperfections because they are signs of growth in life and learning.
For both my Psychology and Sociology classes, I share the following video right before we discuss and debate the role of nature and nurture in our development. If you have not seen this video- pay close attention and DO NOT skip down to the rest until you have watched it!
There is so much to love in this story, but also, so much to make us think.
First, from the question of nature vs. nurture, what plays the biggest role for Jennifer Bricker? Nature took her legs, but it also gave her- we assume- some genetics for athleticism based on the revelation. There is no question that her adoptive parents and her idol/sister played a huge role in her ability to succeed despite the disadvantages. But, one cannot neglect to wonder if the fact that the same birth parents who supported Dominique Moceanu but gave up Jennifer ever weighs on her. While this is an extreme situation, do we not have students who are daily living in this struggle? They have gifts and talents, but other factors weigh them down like lack of support at home or from friends. Or, they have all the support and nurturing you could hope for, but nature has placed obstacles in their path. It goes without saying that we cannot change what nature has given our students, but we can definitely adopt the attitude of her adoptive parents- the only limitation is your use of the word "can't." That is a mindset, a culture we must develop in our schools and classrooms. It is why the phrase "Don't tell me what I can't do" is posted at the front of my room. Do we convey in our actions and words that we truly believe our students can do ANYTHING?
Second, look at the grit and creativity Jennifer demonstrates. My daughters have done tumbling and gymnastics for years. Legs are important to pretty much every apparatus- from running to balance to application of force on the bars. Jennifer had to creatively- and probably through some pain- figure out a new way to do things. I love that in the video, it is her parents who are there with her the whole way. They show her options, they give her aid- but not every student has this advantage. Is her determination and grit naturally part of her personality, or did she learn it from somewhere? For our students who do not have the positive voices at home like the Brickers were for Jennifer- are we being that inspiration of creativity and grit?
Finally, we find Jennifer is making it on her own. Independence is the goal for our children and our students. Our Special Education teachers spend their days equipping their students with skills that will allow them to navigate the world- skills we take advantage of because they come easy to us. Our General Education teachers are also trying to prepare our students for independent thinking and acting. Right now, we as teachers act as cheerleaders for our students, motivators and coaches. We are there, pushing them and challenging them- and loving them. But are we also preparing them for the time when we are not there? Will we prepare them for that day when they are sitting in a college Biology class, or waiting for a job interview, or performing an important task- and we are not there? Jennifer's parents greatest gift may have been that they prepared her to make her own way. They do not live with her, she is living and succeeding on her own. Are we preparing student so think independently, or recite what we tell them?
I love the power of this video. I love that it reminds us that anything truly is possible. And it shows us the power of positive influences when it comes to doing what others say can't be done.
I teach Psychology, Sociology, Communication Applications and Debate at College Station High School, as well as coach the debate team and co-sponsor Student Council. I am an aspiring administrator.