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Opinion: Building Student Voice – A Third Wa...

Opinion: Building Student Voice – A Third Way Approach

By Charles Cole III, Contributor, Huffpost

The antiquated model of “lifting student voice” is children working to serve adults and we need to completely flip that.

What does real student voice look like? Like, for real student voice. I’m not talking about forcing kids to come attend a board meeting and making them stay up past their bedtime just to read from a card that an adult wrote for them with the promise of pizza. Let that baby go to bed, B! See, this version of student

I mean seriously, when is the last time we really met young people where they were and fully engaged them? Again, not talking about where we inject our political leanings on them – I’m looking at both the anti-reformer and reformer crowd. I mean we actually sit down, ask the questions, listen and then offer the support they are asking for.

What if we built capacity in students and then we just followed them? I’m talking about spending time in their classes, learning about how they get to school, better understanding what they like to do and we document it. The things that students need become evident quite quickly and we truly elevate their voices. Doesn’t that seem more authentic? Doesn’t that feel different than when we’ve already chosen the issue WE, the adults want them to focus on?

Currently, in my view, there are a lot of folks that consider student voice the act of giving students a script and parading them in front of a school board meeting or featuring them in front of a funder. To be fair, all sides of the educational political spectrum do this. There are also times when the reasoning may be valid – I get it. There are times when that has paid off for students. Just because I don’t particularly like it, doesn’t mean I don’t understand it.

Awareness in this instance means being honest with students and answering THEIR questions straight up. Just listen, give them the facts, and then listen some more. Take what you have heard and support that student’s navigation.

The antiquated model of “lifting student voice” is children working to serve adults and we need to completely flip that. A kid being paraded at a school board meeting = a kid working for adults. A kid being displayed front and center for a funder = a kid working for adults. An adult listening attentively both to what students say and what students shows us through their actions and then WE provide the appropriate supports = adults working for kids. Fix your equation.

We, as adult education leaders should be listening to what students need and then we work for them. Our job is to build the capacity of students and then pay attention. Where does the boat have holes? Do we need to plug those holes or just build a new boat? Right now, we are pushing kids out on a raft in the middle of shark-infested waters with no spear and they can’t swim.

I say this often, so stop me if you’ve heard this but I see social justice as an act. That act is threefold: (1) awareness, (2) navigation, and (3) duty. Awareness in this instance means being honest with students and answering THEIR questions straight up. Just listen, give them the facts, and then listen some more.

Take what you have heard and support that student’s navigation. Navigation is the building the ability in our students to make this broken system work for them. It’s not fair, I totally get that but I wanted to feel prepared for every situation so I believe we must pay that forward. Finally, we come to (3) duty. Now that you know better, you do better.

One example of what duty can look like in this case is a student that has learned how to review his own transcript now teaching his friends how to do the same. I’ve seen students that learned to read their transcript compared to other similar schools and demand more classes.

Let’s look at doing things differently in service of young people and we all can do that together. Let’s actually work for kids. We are all guilty of forced student voice at times. I am not exempt either.

However, if the way we’ve committed to helping students has no trace of their actual voices, then we are missing quite a few valuable opportunities. I don’t have all the answers. I am not perfect at this. This is the start of a conversation.

Add your voice, your thoughts, and your experience. I believe that if you’re reading this, then you and I are fighting the same battle, to better serve students. Use the comments section to add value to this work. I’ll start. Let’s grow together.


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