When Student Voice Affects Change in Classrooms

For the first years of a child's life, it's "Say something!" and "Stand up and walk to me!" Once we get them in a classroom, it's "Sit down and shut up!" Okay – not that extreme. But it sure can feel that way.

Voice is complex. It's more than being heard. It's realizing what becomes of the voice-audience relationship. There's probably a more clinical way to describe this relationship, but it won't matter much. The key ingredients for my student voice model nurture the following.

  • Listening is key to amplifying student voice.
  • Classrooms in which students are encouraged to provide suggestions.
  • Opportunities to use technology to build digital citizenship and literacy.
  • Conversations that safeguard students without losing visibility of formative assessment data (Verso App)  

I try to create an atmosphere that promotes dialogue and student contributions. It's not always easy to see when it's successful because it can become chaotic. Sometimes, however, it's very clear, especially when it's a student suggestion that led to the lesson design.

Who Owns the Learning?

Although it's not easy to take suggestion about teaching from non-educators, when kids speak up about what they want in their education, I listen. In fact, I am most proud of the work I do when a student initiates a conversation about the work they do. 

This story is about my introduction to Google Docs during the 2012-2013 school year.
It was another day in the computer lab. Students were working on an extended essay for their IB diplomas, and I was catching up on some lesson planning. I still remember George looking at my screen and looking back at his as if he wasn’t ready to reveal his curiosity (he was non-verbally quirky like that). I was having trouble with my thumb drive when I slowly looked over at him and stared until he broke the silence. 
“Ah, you could forget about using thumb drives and just store your files on Google Docs,” he said quickly before ducking his head behind his monitor.

“I know. I use Dropbox for a lot of stuff,” I replied with residual angst from my struggle. I thought for a moment as I redirected my emotions to those becoming of a supportive teacher and more nicely asked, “How does Google Docs work? Is it any good?”
George told me the nuts and bolts during that last block on a Friday in spring 2013. I’ll always remember the day like I’m reliving it because of the closeness of the classroom we established that year. It was a place where students felt like their contributions mattered. They could see that I was listening and making changes according to their needs. This was a classroom with student voice and opportunity for ownership of the learning.

Professional Development

The end of my third year teaching left me with a need to take student voice to the next level. I thought back to that day in the computer lab and decided that learning more about Google Docs, which would soon become Drive, was the way for me to move forward and grow professionally.

That summer, I joined several colleagues at our district-hosted technology conference, Lonestar Technology in Action 2013. I learned about the SAMR model, Google Hangouts, Moodle, and a few tricks on iPhones and iPads. Little did I know that my experience at that conference would nudge me in a different direction.

We should want our students to feel confident that their voice is heard and that it makes a difference. Here are a few stories that have been formative in my approaches to teaching and learning.

Attempting EdTech Integration 

George shared a tool that changed me forever. Another example of student voice that changed the way I make technology decisions came from a sophomore during the 2013-2014 school year.
"Seriously, Mr. Zahner. We have too many accounts – too many passwords to remember," Sophia said walking into the class one morning.
"We'll take a look at it and talk it over with the whole class," I replied.
This is a much shorter story with just as much impact. It was as simple as a student feeling confident enough to speak up about the things I was asking them to do. For many of the students, the accounts for multiple edtech tools was no big deal. But no one argued, especially not me, that fewer accounts would be easier. It was long before many tools allowed users to log in with a Google account. I think Quizlet was the first that I noticed with this feature.

Reaching Every Student

The problems we struggled with were not special to our classroom. Learners all over the world were struggling to integrate technology in ways that promote more learning and new opportunities. When I could finally see the forest for the trees, I was focused on the effects of a tool. What did it have to offer for all of my students?
The same year a student told me that we used too many apps, a girl let me have it on using Twitter for learning. She said that she would not use Twitter for class and that there was nothing I could do about it. There wasn't a thing I would do about it. Forcing someone to use Twitter, or any social media, is a violation of basic freedoms -- another lesson from a student who spoke up.
The refusal to use Twitter for classwork only forced me to dig deeper. I wasn't brought down by the failing notion of a connected classroom. It just meant that I had to make it happen by different means.

I replaced Twitter with Today's Meet and Poll Everywhere. Kids have never complained about these, which is no surprise because I found them on a wave of motivation spurred by the voices of my students. Their concerns and criticism will forever play a key role in my evaluation of digital tools.

Amplifying Quiet Voices

Something else happened during the 2013-2014 school year – I was introduced to Verso App. 

It's great that the students in the stories above had the confidence to speak up about their concerns and suggestions. Verso App showed me that there are voices hiding in quiet places where they are more comfortable than in the open where people might respond, throwing off they way they prefer to process information.

I've written other posts about how Verso App supports the learning process, so I won't go into detail. But I will urge educators to use it for the benefit of facilitating critical discussion in a space that's safe for every student.

I am most proud of stories like these because it was students who spoke up and changed the way our classroom activities were designed. 

Thanks for reading.