“What practices best support the development of student voice and leadership?”
Your personal journey to the question…
I’m not exactly sure when opening a school first became my goal. I remember thinking about it when I was struggling through my first teaching job. I looked at the poor little school where I worked and I remember wondering why we did what we did, who decides and how I would do things differently if I could. In particular, I remember Morning Call each Monday, when the whole school met on the main field to kick off the week. I remember watching adult after adult take the microphone and tell the kids what was coming up and what they would be doing. I was struck by the awards and the cheering, when so many of my students looked disconnected and unengaged in what was happening. I also remember that the very few students who were trusted with the microphone were the ‘high level’ kids who could easily be scripted into reading what the adults were going to say anyway. One thing I knew for sure: my second graders were smart and they knew what they were interested in. They voted and decided each unit we explored and, when one theme ended, they chomped at the bit to throw out their ideas for what to do next. What would they do if they could get the WHOLE SCHOOL into their hands? What was their take on everything from Morning Call to lunch to recess to the playground….
I didn’t say anything about it because I was young and used to an obedience model. I had been trained, through 18 years of public school, that things are just done a certain way: adults decide, kids obey. I really wanted more for those amazing kids but what, after all, could I possibly know about what is best? I was fresh out of college with only one summer’s worth of teacher training when I entered the school so how could I possibly trust a bunch of elementary school kids to make decisions?
I spent the next 10 years working in a variety of public schools with a similar mentality. From elementary school to high school, from ‘tough’ school to privileged school, everyone I worked with over that time agreed on one flawed axiom: adults decide, kids obey. I saw it in vivid relief when I worked at the high school level. Teaching in a high school steeped in ‘tradition,’ I listened as my student government representatives threw out idea after idea for how to adjust everything from homecoming to the school day. Each time, school leadership ignored the voices of those most key stakeholders insisting that tradition was more important; that they couldn’t possibly change the way things have always been done. And yet, I knew that they wanted to change things to connect themselves and their classmates to authentic school and self pride. I couldn’t help but notice that the students who tapped into those traditions were those who were from families that had always seen school as their domain. For anyone who was different, the welcome notion of doing something else provided the possibility that they might see themselves reflected in the school they attended too.
Then, in 2008, I started working at High Tech High International in San Diego. I had left teaching two years earlier, as I had become quite disillusioned with working in a public school setting. I felt as if I was not making a difference BECAUSE of the work I was doing — I felt like I was helping a select few IN SPITE of the work I was doing. I was struck by numerous things after visiting High Tech for the first time but highest on that list was my shock over how very empowered and mature the students were. They were part of their learning environment. They were valued and respected and so many of them knew they had a voice.
During this most recent school year, I have struggled with culture building in our tenth grade team.. After exploring the issue with the entire grade level, it seemed that what was most at issue was a lack of trust stemming from a feeling of total loss of power and value. What has struck me is that I see in the students the same feelings that drove me from the classroom. They just don’t feel valued or empowered. They feel like victims of their environment rather than valued components. This example has led me to wonder about how students really see what we do. What would they identify as major areas of need and how would they address it with their classmates. As I continue to work at High Tech, I am grappling with how to develop this student voice in an authentic way. Admittedly, this leads to the difficult dichotomy of empowerment vs. entitlement. What I wonder is: how do we empower students to explore their school and work to make it better without creating students who feel they get to dictate? How do we make them partners?
At the High Tech High schools, there are several operating principles. One of them, Teacher as Designer, says the following:
[Teachers] step up to lead parts of, or entire staff meetings, PD focus groups, grade level meetings, and study/action groups. Teachers participate in critical decisions regarding curriculum, assessment, classroom budgets, professional development, advisory, hiring, facilities, student discipline, and other significant areas of the school.
This particular principle has often been implemented through study/action groups which are an integral part of how teachers identify, discuss and ultimately solve school issues they see. In my first year at HTH, I was struck by the responsibility and empowerment I felt through these groups. I remember working on the group that wanted to re envision advisory. At each of our meetings, we shared what we thought and what we saw. We took the time to look at other models and we brought sources that we felt were most helpful. To be clear, we certainly didn’t agree on all solutions but we did agree on the need for the work. Ultimately, we wanted to try to find a solution that worked for our kids and our school. So, having done everything from digging into D/F lists to understand our patterns to organizing a Career Day, my experience with study groups has taught me the power of teacher identified solutions and the struggles inherent in creating consensus. The more I felt empowered, the more engaged and solution-oriented I will be.
I now wonder: is this same type of work good for kids too? I certainly do not feel entitled to dictate every decision we must undertake, but I have slowly developed my voice and my ability to engage in this meaningful work. What would the students do, given the same opportunity?
Over the 16 years I have worked in education, this question of who decides and what is best has stuck with me. And, as I have grown in confidence, I have wanted to know more and more why we do what we do in schools. Central to the answer are those that are most integral to the process of education: teachers and students. I am now wondering much more about how students’ voices can become part of the conversation as well. In thinking about what is best for schools, what role can students play in identifying the issues and challenges and then working to come up with a plan to address those issues?
How could it possibly be that those that are most disconnected (ie. boards and principals) have the most power in deciding what are the problems and what are the solutions? Currently, I serve as Dean of Students at High Tech High Media Arts. In theory, since I am not in the classroom nor am I a student, I am one of those disconnected individuals I find to be most suspect. As I look to the future and the possible opening of my own school one day, I think about how best to facilitate true school leadership driven by the vision of the students. Typically, as the Dean, I work with students through social events planning, such as spirit weeks and dances. As I have talked to students in casual settings such as these, I have often found myself in conversations about how to improve the schools in general. When speaking of school spirit, students often voice their ideas about where we need to grow as a school and how we can foster stronger engagement through improvements to areas they identify as weak. So, I wonder, what would happen if these students worked on those fundamental issues? How would they solve them and what sort of lens would they bring to the work? How can I facilitate these conversations so they feel meaningful, valuable and worthwhile?
What are the best ways to identify the needs that students feel most passionate about and to direct time towards exploring and engaging in those questions? How can students engage teachers in their groups to unify the voices of the two most important stakeholders: students and teachers? What happens when there is disagreement? How can a diverse group of students find consensus while driving innovation and their own collective best interest? And, within all of this, how can students serve as a stabilizing reminder that the work is valuable by creating in the process at every step? These questions are the main reason why I wonder; What practices best support the development of meaningful student voice and leadership?
Through this project, I hope to engage students in school leadership. My goal is develop a system that meets the needs of the school community and to development structures and protocols that support student voice and action. I feel the need for this work because as I watch our struggles with student engagement and culture, I am struck by how seldom the education world talks to the most important people in the building. I truly trust students and I think they are intensely capable of taking on this challenge. They show up to school every day, ready to learn and hopeful that they will be successful. I wonder what a school they create will look like.
Your journey connecting the literature and preliminary data to your project design.
Entering a new school environment is both a liberating and a scary endeavor. This year, after five years at my previous school, I made the transition to a new school. Located caddy corner to my previous site, High Tech High Media Arts is in the same network and village of schools as my former school, High Tech High International. As I entered Media Arts, I found myself standing back as an observer much more than I was used to doing at High Tech High International. As the Dean of Students, my role is less clearly defined than most others, so I found myself working to understand the structures that existed in order to better find my place in them. I was initially struck by how different these two schools within the same system were. I also found myself wondering about how to improve or address structures that I felt connected to. In particular, I have worked extensively with student government and was struck that Media Arts didn’t have a functioning ASB of any kind. In any school, the ASB (Associated Student Body, or student government) are the student voice on campus.
I also, however, found myself without allies. In particular, I found that I knew very few students and even fewer teachers. So, as I worked to get to know anyone and everyone, I found myself wondering about what was working and what wasn’t. More to the point, I found myself wondering about what I defined as areas of concern versus. what others saw. Who am I, after all, to walk in and implement changes that I identify — what about what everyone else sees and what about what they would identify as the greatest areas of concern? These were the questions that pushed me to think about where to go to gain that perspective. Who really knows best? When the opinions of my director didn’t line up with what I was seeing and experiencing, does that make him wrong or does that mean that I need to gain more perspective? My hunch was that I needed to meet more people, gain more perspective and gain more knowledge.
This idea led me to want to hear more from the students. As the greatest stake holders in the building, their perspective was the most important one and the one that I lacked. Its hard to get to know kids — especially when you are the Dean of Students — the one students go to when they are in trouble. While I spent time in classrooms and in the halls just getting to know kids, there is still that aura around ‘The Dean’ that makes each interaction with a student seem suspect to them. So, in answer to an assignment for my graduate school program, I decided to convene a panel of students to talk about what they saw happening in their school. I wanted to know what they saw as areas of concern and I wanted them to approach it through the lens of the feedback surveys from the previous year.
This group yielded two tremendous results. First, the students were rapt with the work. They poured over the data and really wanted to understand what was happening. They asked tons of questions and were wonderfully critical in what they saw. They sought to understand through a variety of lenses as they asked where the data came from, who participated and what the reports that were provided to them meant. I loved watching them discuss and decipher what was in front of them. At the end, they discovered how hard it is to address these issues. The last question they were asked to tackle was to come up with some recommendations for how to address issues they identified. The groups found themselves wondering what COULD they do? How could they change things and where could they find some ideas that could move them forward? This led to the second tremendous result: the students desperately wanted to continue the work. I had scheduled four sessions, each an hour long. When we wrapped up the final session, I asked each group to list two things on their final reflections: who would be willing to meet with faculty to discuss their findings and who might be willing to serve on an advisory council to address these issues and any others we might identify from the student perspective. Of the 33 students who attended those meetings, everyone shared that they wanted to participate in both. They were hungry to have a say in their school and they were willing to do the hard work to find solutions.
Since convening that group in late February, I have taken stronger steps to empower our ASB and to expand the scope of their work. For the first time in four years, we are holding elections for next year’s group and the students who are running have been told that they will take on the dual role of culture leaders and school changers. Now, as we endeavor down this path, I have many questions about how to support this work. Specifically, my questions surround three key themes. FIrst, is this work that students are equipped to do? WIll I just find myself managing students as they try to implement structures that they know from public school? Will they even be able to think about school leadership in this way? Second, I wonder how to make their voice meaningful both for them, and for the school community as a whole. This extends to creating meaning for the adults in the building too. Will the students grapple with real questions or will the culture ask them to stick with superficial issues of spirit weeks and culture events? Finally, I wonder what kind of effect and of this can have. Can they really do work that matters? Will they stick with it and will they really buy in when they have so much to do?
Beyond Classroom Feedback: Trusting students are equipped to do more
In his work, Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide, Alfie Kohn states, “The truth is that, if we want children to take responsibility for their own behavior, we must first give them responsibility, and plenty of it. The way a child learns how to make decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.” What if students took on the ultimate responsibility of identifying and addressing larger scale issues within their school? What if they gave feedback on more than just a project or a classroom activity or their teacher? Kohn goes on to note that, “The four key realms in which students can make academic decisions are what, how, how well, and why they learn.” What if we took those questions and extended them to greater school wide issues?
In her book, Sent to the Principal: Students Talk about Making High Schools Better, Kathleen Cushman worked with the students of What Kids Can Do to explore questions of school improvement. Taken from their website, the What Kids Can Do foundation states they press a dual mission of “ the power of what young people can accomplish when given the opportunities and supports they need and what they can contribute when we take their voices and ideas seriously.” Cushman worked with their students to “make public the voices of youth about their lives and learning.” While the whole book has implications for my work, I was most struck by the voices that emerged in Chapter 2, “Bring us to the table.” In this Chapter, Cushman addressed what student voices from across the nation identified as their greatest advice regarding whose voice matters. What emerges in this chapter are four key pieces of advice:
Consult us informally and formally
Make leadership part of the curriculum
Ask us to research student opinions
Use us as ambassadors
Within this chapter, the voices of the students clearly emerge asking for a greater responsibility and voice. Cushman’s work is striking in that not only does she summarize what she heard, she offers numerous quotes from students. As far as developing this work, the following quote struck me most, “When they give us more responsibility than they usually would—other people might call it challenging us—they show that they trust us to accomplish it. Giving us more say in our education means that they think we’re able.They trust us to make the right decisions about our learning, about our daily experiences at school. That would be a huge benefit to all the entire student body,rather than a liability for the administration. (RaShawn)”
In order for any of this to happen, there is a certain power dynamic that must be challenged. “The key issue is whose voice can be heard in the acoustic of the school, and by whom.” This means that the adults in the building must trust the ability of the students to name the real issues and to address them in a way that supports a positive culture. This also means the adults must willingly abdicate their power to ‘decide’ and allow for collaboration. This is particularly difficult because “what students have to say about teaching and learning may be feared as personally challenging or as threatening to the institution. A strategy of the fearful is to limit student comment to aspects of school life which are seen as relatively safe or which do not have significant impact on the work of adults within the school.”
This can often result in work that limit students to meaningless issues that hold little consequences for education as a whole. This is often the structure of most student governments throughout traditional high schools. While culture building is certainly an important aspect of any high school experiences, limiting students to questions of class colors and pep rallies excludes their voice in larger questions for which they hold a unique perspective.
These are, perhaps, my two greatest concerns as I begin this work. How do I effectively include student voice in questions that really matter and how to I ensure that the school as a whole is ready to have students included. I know how important informal conversations with students are, but as I work to formalize their role and their voice, what are the structures and themes that results in the greatest meaning?
Making the Work Meaningful
Certainly, while still in its infancy, efforts to include student voice in school leadership are not new. Numerous organizations throughout the country have asked students to weigh in on school improvement and in the schools and organizations where expanding student voice has been tried, the main theme that emerges is that of making the work meaningful.
In her work, The significance of students: can increasing” student voice” in schools lead to gains in youth development?, Dana Mitra analyzed the efforts of one school to improve student voice as part of a school improvement plan. Her intent was to find a ‘best-case scenario’ of student voice efforts by analyzing the emergence of student voice at Whitman High School in the San Francisco Bay Area. She uses three key concepts to understand youth experiences in student voice — Agency, Belonging and Competence defined as follows:
Agency: Acting or exerting inﬂuence and power in a given situation
Belonging: Developing meaningful relationships with other students and adults and having a role at the school
Competence: Developing new abilities and being appreciated for one’s talents
The purpose of using these lenses is to ascertain the outcomes of the work. What do students gain from engaging in this work and besides the effects on the learning community, how do students grow and benefit?
Through the development of a Pupil-School Collaborative (PSC) and a Student Forum, Whitman High attempted to engage student voice in identifying goals and engaging in the process of change. “Student Forum focused its efforts at the organizational level by seeking student participation in efforts to reform the school and to institute new school programs and policies. The group sought to inject student voice into school decision making and to seek ways to make the school a better place for all students.”
Using the lens mentioned above, Mitra found powerful student outcomes, summarized as follows:
Increasing ability to articulate opinions to others
Constructing new identities as change makers
Developing a greater sense of leadership
Developing a relationship with a caring adult
Improving interactions with teachers
Increasing attachment to the school
Critiquing their environment
Developing problem solving and facilitation skills
Getting along with others
While about 30 students participated in Student Forum, and only 15 of them regularly, the effects were far reaching as the teacher that spearheaded the effort took great pains to ensure that all student groups and ‘cliques’ were represented. This had the effect of disseminating the results into larger social groups although each student was not present at the meetings. Further, while Mitra acknowledges that efforts such as these are sparse on the national level, the effect was so far reaching at Whitman, its hard not to imagine the potential at any school site. In the end, what worked was that a variety of students worked within their school to name their goals and work for change. They structured their work around their particular site and they created alliances with teachers and administrators who were equally as vested in the work.
Students hold a unique perspective that adults often cannot see yet, even as the greatest stakeholders in the building, they are often left out of important school wide decisions. The website, What Students Can Do puts it this way, “When first invited then supported to carry out their own research on their schools, students can ask questions and collect answers as rigorously as any adults. They also ask questions that wouldn’t occur to academic researchers and use language that’s more youth-friendly, increasing the likelihood that fellow students will respond thoughtfully.” Mitra breaks this ability to be ‘youth-friendly’ like this, “The adults who assisted with the focus groups learned quickly of the importance of having students participate in the analysis of the focus-group data. Adults thought they understood the data, but often they needed clarification from students about what had actually been said in the focus group participants and with translating the responses into “adult-friendly” language.”
Situated outside of a single school, Soundout is an internet based non-profit who states their mission as follows:
SoundOut is an expert assistance program focused on promoting Student Voice and Meaningful Student Involvement throughout education. We work with K-12 schools, districts, state and provincial education agencies, and nonprofit education organizations across the United States and Canada.
Focused primarily on partnering with existing organizations, SoundOut offers a variety of workshops and resources all focused on increasing student voice and empowerment in the most meaningful way possible. Like Mitra, they also offer a particular lens for their work which they call the Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement:
Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement:
1. Listen – The first step for the ideas, knowledge, experience, and opinions of students to be shared with adults.
2. Validate – Students are acknowledged as purposeful and significant partners who can and should hold themselves and their schools accountable.
3. Authorize – Students develop their abilities to meaningfully contribute to school improvement through skill-sharing, action planning, and strategic participation.
4. Mobilize – Students and adults take action together as partners in school improvement through a variety of methods (see Chapters 3 and 4).
5. Reflect – Together, adults and students examine what they have learned through creating, implementing, and supporting meaningful student involvement, including benefits and challenges. Reflections are then used to inform Step 1, Listen.
For SoundOut, the main goal is meaning and every discussion revolves around the authenticity of the work. This means that every person in the building must accept that student voice is necessary in creating a total vision for a school. “Meaningful student involvement evolves from a growing awareness among students and educators that young people can and should play a crucial role in the success of school improvement.” In their Guide to Students as Partners in School Change, they explore this notion of meaning deeply, conveying the need for authentic participation and constant reflection to ensure that the work students are doing has a real connection to their environment and their reality. Towards that end, the guide also names the need for constant reflection. “Meaningful student involvement is part of a transformative cycle that should be continually re-examined, redeveloped and reconceived within each learning community as it evolves over time with new participants. The potential outcomes are too great to ignore the possibilities.”
Within these examples, I begin to see structures that can emerge within the newly envisioned ASB I hope to create. In particular, I appreciate the focus on agency and belonging as I struggle to make this work as ‘real’ as possible. Certainly, there is strong vision here for how to organize and how to progress through establishing the work in the most meaningful way possible. I also like appreciate the need to ensure that everyone in the building authorizes the work and understands what is happening.
My plan is to introduce a newly revised, two-tiered ASB. I am hoping to attract and work with students who want to look at two main themes. The first will address school culture and spirit. The group will work to develop culture events that will build a feeling of positivity and connection. We will strive to design activities more fitting of our progressive atmosphere. The second theme will be of school leadership. We will explore larger school issues that the students identify then work on ways to address them. I look forward to them engaging teachers in their ideas and designs and I am hopeful that we will be able to begin seeing more student lead change that really addresses student need. We will revisit these themes quarterly and assess how well we have done in meeting our goals to creating real and meaningful school change.
June: All school elections. Rather than using a traditional hierarchy, we will elect a council of
three from each grade level.
August: New ASB will meet in the weeks before school starts to begin to identify the themes for first
\semester. Students will create the two different lists and they will chair or co-chair issues they feel most passionately about.
Quarter 1: We will implement our first committees during this nine week cycle.
End of Q1: We will review our work through collecting data to indicate the effectiveness of our efforts.
Quarter 2: We will implement our second committees during this nine week cycle.
End of Q2: We will review our work through collecting data to indicate the effectiveness of our efforts.
Quarter 3: We will implement our third committees during this nine week cycle.
End of Q3: We will review our work through collecting data to indicate the effectiveness of our efforts.
I want to collect data from three distinct groups. The first group will be the ASB students that will be part of the ‘inner circle’ group. I will track their responses and their efficacy. I want to check in with them via video and feedback forms to see how we are doing. The second group is the student body as a whole. I plan to have a pre-survey, then check in to measure how we might be improving student voice. The third group is the teachers. I am hoping to include them in many of the school issues groups and want to gauge their response to the work as well. They always have a firm grasp of what the students are feeling too so their input will be vital in understanding what kids are feeling and saying. I hope to do this through interviews, some video and exit carding as well.