Thursday, March 19, 2015

Empowering Student Voice: Building Confidence through Anonymity

I'll never forget the day my 12th grade English teacher announced to the class that I could write. She sounded surprised – and not, at the same time. It was halfway through the year, and believe it or not, I was really quiet in school.

I had to wait four more years before someone with authority told me that I was a good writer. Reflecting on this experience, I now realize that proficiency had very little to do with anything. It was the audience that I craved, especially considering that it was the only way I could learn about which parts were helpful.

This week's #YourEduStory is about how teachers empower student voice in the classroom or at school. In my classroom, I deal with the confidence issues before students are expected to make themselves available for criticism or validation. Here's two examples of confidence issues on either end of the spectrum. 

Two Students We Know

The student who raises his hand for everything but has very little substance to contribute is sometimes viewed as a positive contributor. His ability to articulate his thoughts with such confidence has teachers distracted from his lack of evidence and analysis to support his response. Whether he's right or wrong, he's charming and got his stage time, even though the teacher smiles, thanks him, and calls on another student.

The second student is a discovery that I equate to spotting a golden nugget while drinking from a mountain spring. She is the quiet one who almost always has a good response with evidence and reason to support her claims. But she is afraid to raise her hand, so you won't meet her contribution in a cooperative learning setting. The life of the lesson will not include her contribution, which could have turned good teaching into great learning.

Know these two?

Anonymity Builds Confidence

Consider the power of anonymity for both of theses students. When their names are taken away from the contribution, whatever motivated them to speak, or not, becomes irrelevant. All they are left with is the idea, which will be the focus of scrutiny, not their personality.

In a paper classroom, activities could include nameless sentences or paragraphs taped or tacked to the wall. A more cooperative exercise like synthesis writing requires students to add one idea and pass it to next student as everyone makes their contribution to each finished product. For example, I like it when my students make synthesis graphic organizers because students can build authority on their contribution while learning about other ideas.

These activities don't provide anonymity perfectly. For complete anonymity, you'll need a digital tool that collects student responses and makes them available to an audience beyond the teacher. This helps students feel safe and expands their audience and multiplies the feedback, which is key to building confidence.

Empowering Student Voice with Verso

Verso is a response management system that prompts students to respond to a problem, called a flip, designed by the teacher. Once they've responded, they gain access to a wall where they can open other student responses and comment, like, or flag if something is not academic. No names are visible, so students focus on the response, not the individual.

As the teacher, I can see the names of the respondents. This feature allows me to build a stronger profile of each student earlier in the year than after winter break, like my 12th grade English teacher. She was great, by the way.

My favorite feature on the Verso app is the progress report (image right). The blue line represents how many comments students made, while the green line is the amount of likes received from comments or responses. The students can see their own progress report, and each flip includes a progress report of all the students in the teacher view.

Most importantly, Verso takes away the judgement of character that most of us fear and provides a safe space for sharing knowledge. It also encourages students to consider who's reading their responses and commentary.

Focusing on the Outcome

We want our kids to be literate so they can identify a worthwhile problem and formulate an appropriate response. This goal can be achieved when we provide students the opportunity to discover and develop their voice in the safety of schools.

As we move into a time when digital technology will be accessible to all, educators need to not forget that use of technology only supports pedagogy and the pedagogy only supports our learners finding and developing their voice.