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!
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.