Student Voice 101: It's About More than Assignments and Grades
We are inundated with voices; there are more people connected to each other and sharing their thoughts and opinions than any other time in the history of humanity. The students we serve are the first generation where that level of connectivity plays such a pervasive role in their lives. They have shared their thoughts on everything from One Direction to #BlackLivesMatter. There is a lot of information and opinions on the web concerning the issue of "Student Voice". What does it mean? Do we listen to everything students have to say? Should we build our instruction around the voice of our students? As a teacher in rural central Florida, some of my students say they'd love to just be seen.
Students Are More Connected than Ever
A study from SAP at the end of 2013 reports that there are more mobile devices than people on Earth. Common Sense Media shares that 38% of 2-year-olds use mobile devices, and the average age for an individual receiving their first personal cell phone has dropped to 13-years-old. The Pew Research Center states that 90% of people have a mobile device within reach 100% of the time, and 80% of people check their smartphones within 15 minutes of waking up. These statistics are primarily comprised of adults who have adopted technology as it has developed. These numbers are sure to grow as our current students move from the classroom to the workforce. These students are begging for the education world to make the things they are learning and the way in which they learn them relevant.
Technology is ubiquitous, and, as such, each student has a portal to the collective mind of the human race! Our students are screaming for us to create challenges that actually engage their brains.
"I feel things that are 'earned' like honor roll and NJHS aren't truly earned because things are so easy."-Eight Grade Student
This student shared with me that most assignments are considered participation or completion grades. They are no longer satisfied with completing assignments that are relatively easy and meaningless hoops to jump through, and are seeking a more substantiated way to prove that they should be considered the best of the best. When seated with their peers in NJHS or honor roll celebrations they know that they didn't have to put their full effort in to achieve this "honor". Some would say we need to provide more rigor for our students, and I would agree but their answer isn't the solution. Providing more busy work, or having more pop quizzes or tests doesn't raise the level of rigor in your curriculum. You raise the rigor in your classes by providing students with real world problems, with ways to apply the information available at their finger tips. Anyone can look up the third line of the Magna Carta, but we can entrust our students with the task of rewriting this iconic agreement to find ways it applies to life in our culture today. Students can collaborate on remixing the Bill of Rights or plan to more efficiently build a house using mathematical formulas.
"I am invisible to most teachers; I just blend in. If they see me, it's just as a label; so I just keep my mouth shut even though I feel like crying."-Eighth Grade Student
Student voice is more than tailoring our assignments to the individual needs of our students, it's about hearing their hearts as they deal with the world they live in. Our picturesque view of the family in America has changed, even in rural Citrus County. Students are not going home to find parents encouraging them to do chores, homework, and establish a routine on a daily basis. Students are tasked with the responsibilities of adults and then come to school and are treated like children. If we want authentic student engagement we have to remove the paradigm of control from the classroom relationship.
"I have the responsibility of taking care of my brothers when I get home. I don't have time to study. I don't have time to do anything, and when I do find time I'm usually crying and breaking down."
"If teachers knew why I'm tired they would understand! I have a special needs brother who can't talk and screams all night because he's scared, I can't get enough sleep."
Yes. Kids are still going to be kids; they are going to push back against authority; they are going to find the path of least resistance to completing an assignment, but that's nothing new. That mindset was evolutionarily developed; if we our ancient ancestors worked harder than they needed to for a meal they would die. How can we expect students to work harder than is needed to complete an assignment?
In 2004, Steven Covey coined the phrase, "constant white water". He likened the Millennial's life to the activity of white water rapids. Students wake up, get dressed, go to school, deal with teachers, bullying, drama, emotions, hormones, go to "practice" (athletic), go to an other "practice" (musical), go home, do homework, go to bed. Their weekends are filled with projects spilled over from class, recitals, games, and ways to live up to their parents' expectations. Our students are faced with more pressure and expectations than any other generation. They arguably are the first generation that is faced with the fact that they have to fix what the past has broken long before they are ready to tackle it.
"I hate school so much. I mean... I like seeing my friends, but I hate it when drama hits, its like a wave."
This student doesn't even mention what should be the true reason they go to school. All of the outside factors that they deal with on a daily basis overtake the fact that learning is the purpose of school. The light of learning that was gleaming bright on the first day of school, has been all but snuffed out.
What can we do?
Listen to the hearts of our students; ask them how they want to learn. If students are not performing in your class, don't just write it off as laziness. Remember that they are facing some of the same problems we are facing as adults.
"I have so much pressure to be who my parents want me to be, I don't have time for math."
The problem isn't under-active parents, or over-active parents. There are barriers that exist in all circumstance that can stop a student in their tracks if we allow them. Listening to the hearts of our students is the first step towards removing those barriers.
"My life is busy and that's not my fault. I don't get home until 10:30. I don't feel like doing things that will have no impact on me."
Student voice isn't only about assignments and relevancy, but they certainly are worth consideration. We cannot continue to prepare our students for the world of 1960. Our classrooms are evolving; while we focus on collaboration and inquiry, many of our classroom teachers still have punitive grading practices and a managerial control cultures as key features of their "teaching styles". Students under these teachers' tutelage will not be facing these archaic obstacles in their careers. They will face real world problems, find solutions in teams, determine the roles and goals, and are expected to see it to fruition.
Open our Eyes
"Teachers need to understand that there is more than they see. Teachers only see us how they want to see us: a good kid, a bad kid, a slacker. There is more to someone than that."
No one wants to be labeled. No one wants to feel that they have been judged with little or no information justifying said judgment. Imagine you're a student. You've come into class. It's the first week of 6th grade. You're every bit nervous and excited. You just received a new cell phone as a gift and feel that you have finally arrived to the world of connectivity and young adulthood. You place that phone in your back pocket as you walk into the classroom. The teacher sees the over-sized phone poking out of the undersized pocket, and immediately reprimands the student in front of the class and subsequently writes that student a referral to the discipline office for having their electronic device out in class. It could take that student more than a year to recover from that single event if they recover at all. The love for school, and learning has turned to a fear of embarrassment and resentment towards that teacher and any teacher that resembles them.
You're students are your family. You spend more time with them than any other group of people in a single year. As we wind down to the end of the year, remember that your students long to feel accepted by you. You are in some cases the only positive influence in their lives. Seeing them and hearing what they have to say will teach them more than any prepared lesson could ever teach.