Helping Students Find Their Voice | Discovery Education
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Helping Students Find Their Voice

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Students who receive input about their learning will reward you with engagement.

For almost all students, their favorite classes are those in which they feel empowered in their learning. When I was in school, I know that when my teachers provided options, valued my opinion, and shifted the responsibilities of learning to me, my level of engagement increased dramatically.

Now I’m a middle school math teacher with my own room full of students, and I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of fostering student voice in my classroom. Especially during a time when so many of us feel like we don’t have as much control over our specific learning environment and what’s going on outside of the classroom walls.

One of my goals as a math teacher is to help my students see themselves, their ideas, and their thoughts reflected in the required curriculum. Student voice does not mean student takeover. To the contrary, the idea of students having a voice in what they learn, when they learn it, and how they learn it leads to collaborative opportunities to increase engagement and facilitate deeper student learning.

Even though my classroom is primarily built on structures that foster independence, it’s still a shift for me to scale back my own responsibility for student learning as their teacher and place it more with them as the learners. While I don’t have any hard and fast rules, there are some guidelines that I follow to help ensure that student voice is at the forefront of my instructional decisions.

Create Classroom Norms Together

Norms and rules are not the same things. Rules help to establish the practices and procedures that allow tasks to be completed in classrooms. Norms provide teachers and students with agreements about how best to support one another and learn from one another. They also help create a positive classroom culture for learning.

As I began to infuse student ideas and suggestions into our class expectations, I saw the value in co-creating these norms rather than creating them independently of my students.

Collaborating has helped me better understand what my students value and what is important to them. During the creation of our class norms, it was apparent that students appreciate the chance to give their opinions and thrive on the opportunity to hear what their peers think as well. These norms continue to provide structure for our class, and we review them periodically. We also adjust them when needed to better meet the changing nature of our classroom.

To this end, our classroom culture depends on the students’ accountability to uphold the norms that we create together. When students interact with each other during collaborative problem solving, it’s understood that each student is responsible for contributing to the discussions during the group work. Consequently, my students understand that every voice in the group is important and will be valued.

I do get students who, from time to time, deviate from the norm. But because I’ve established with my students the expected behaviors, they are quick to reset the conversation and get back to the business at hand.

Norms Don’t Need to Be Elaborate

I’ve found that establishing expectations for how students treat one another in class provides them with the opportunity to see and hear their voice reflected in our classroom practices. When I establish norms with my students, we focus on what language is and isn’t acceptable during classroom collaboration and the responsibility that each student has in contributing to their own learning and the learning of others. For example, my students understand that they are expected to advocate for themselves and ask questions accordingly. Their questions help me differentiate my instruction and enable me to reflect on my practices to better meet their needs. I expect my students to communicate with me and with one another, especially when things get challenging.

It’s also equally important that students learn to trust me and to trust their classmates. Our norms reflect my students’ deep desire to learn from one another and their willingness to take responsibility for their own learning.

Rules might govern student procedures in my classroom, but norms help to facilitate a classroom culture conducive to student responsibility and student learning.

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Foster Feedback and Flexibility

Perhaps no other educator tool has the potential to elicit change and facilitate student responsibility more than feedback between teacher and student and between the students themselves. In our classroom, feedback is given carefully and always through the lens of improvement. We focus on what students are doing well and address specific steps students can take to continue to improve.

If there is a specific goal a student is working toward, students feel comfortable enough to ask for suggestions from their peers to help them reach that goal. Feedback becomes the structure through which students become more involved in their own learning and the learning of others.

In my classroom, it is not uncommon to hear students reflecting on the lesson and sharing their thoughts about the curriculum, objective, and math concepts learned. We talk about the culture in class that must be present for my students to grasp challenging concepts. Recently, when my students were working together to defend the strategies that they used to solve a problem, several students thought it would be best if the groups were smaller than the 28 students in our classroom. Their theory was that the smaller groups would let each student ask questions about the strategies that were shared and not be rushed to hear everyone’s strategies. This was another example of the way in which my students began to take more ownership for their learning.

We tried it, and they were right. The smaller groups did help to facilitate better discussion and more engaged student-to-student conversations. The feedback I shared with them about the difference that this small shift made for student learning allowed students to feel comfortable making suggestions at other times as well.

Embrace Student Voice to Drive Engagement

I knew that I was on the right path when students began showing up in my classroom during lunchtime looking for extra support. But their true motives were revealed to me when they began to talk about why they liked our math class, how they felt important and believed that I genuinely cared about them. I noticed the shift to “our math class around the same time I noticed an increase in lunchtime visitors. My students were deeply involved in their own learning. They knew their voice not only mattered but was truly valued. In turn, my connection with students has never been better.

Student voice and student engagement are not, however, synonymous. While the first can lead to the latter, it’s rarely a straight path. To fully embrace the idea of student voice, teachers must be willing to do the work to ensure its continued existence in their classroom.

As I learn more about how to integrate student voice into my instructional practices, I continue to seek out additional resources and ideas, such as those found in Discovery Education’s Educator Supports or SOS Instructional Strategies Channel.

Improve the Classroom Experience with Their Voice

The small things that I did over the years to establish a culture of student voice continue to pay dividends for my students and for me. I’ve continued to refine my practices to include student-developed assessments, choice seating, and more personalized approaches to student learning. I truly hope that by working collaboratively with my students, I am helping to provide them with opportunities to own their learning and grow socially and emotionally—in my classroom and beyond.

Written by Kelly Collins-McCarthy, a middle school teacher based in Maryland