Dr. Judith M. Newman


Manitoba School Improvement Program




This report provides:

  • a description of the Student Voice Project
  • discussion of the Listening to the Voices Teacher Conference which grew out of the Student Voice Project
  • excerpts from some of the teacher inquiries


The Manitoba School Improvement Program (currently funded by the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation) was interested in initiating a teacher research group to explore issues of student voice. The motivation to create such a group arose from the recognition that student voice affects both teachers and students. Various MSIP projects previously had scheduled events which encouraged students to become more active participants in their schools. It became apparent that teachers, also, needed to explore ways of encouraging more active participation from their students and the impact that such participation would have both in the school and in the classroom.

During the Fall of 1996, Superintendents of all the school divisions represented in MSIP were contacted to see if they would be willing to allow one or two teachers from their division to use an educational leave to study the concept of student voice. Some divisions agreed to sponsor one or two teachers; others indicated that teachers would be able to attend but would need to make financial arrangements through their school. MSIP then approached schools. At the end of November, fifteen teachers (representing fourteen schools) met with Dr. Judith Newman for a day-long session. Subsequent sessions were held in January, February, April and May.

In advance of the first meeting the participants received a package which included a brief welcoming letter and four articles (1). The articles raised issues about student involvement in decisions about learning/teaching, about school reform, about student resistance, and about teacher research. The teachers were asked to read and respond to the articles in preparation for the November meeting.

At the November meeting, the participants began by discussing the articles. The focal issue which emerged concerned student resistance. This led to an exploration of the participants themselves as learners. The teachers were asked to consider what aspects of a learning situation drew them in as learners, what factors shut them out. Although they were discussing their own learning, it was quickly apparent to the teachers that they were describing their students. The questions "How can I tell when students are engaged?" "What can I learn about what shuts them out?" became a focus for the teachers' inquiry for the January meeting. The discussion then moved on to action research techniques. The teachers were introduced to critical incidents as a research tool (2). They were invited to record the unexpected in their interaction with students both in the classroom and in the school as a basis for the next meeting.

Discussion at the January meeting focused on critical incidents. In small groups, the teachers shared experiences that raised questions about student resistance, their non-engagement, the active "not learning" (Kohl, 1994) they had observed. During the large group discussion which followed, the distinction between systemic barriers and personal ones emerged. The critical incidents which the teachers related described problems created for students and teachers by institutional constraints which impact on classroom life--lack of communication among teachers, departmentalization, textbooks, timetabling, etc. The incidents also raised issues about inadvertent ways in which teachers made decisions which shut students out.

At the February meeting the discussion explored "What do we mean by student voice?" In small groups and later in a large group forum the teachers identified factors which would foster in students a greater investment in learning:

    •   providing students opportunities to participate in decision-making
    •   making room for student input into content decisions
    •   providing time for in-depth study
    •   allowing student input into evaluation
    •   offering choices of how to demonstrate learning
    •   flexibility of content, consequences, timing, working relationships
    •   valuing more than the "facts"

At both the January and February meetings the teachers also dealt with data which focused on changes to their engagement with students and what they observed when they tried making room for students' voices. They were encouraged to focus on a couple of critical incidents which highlighted new insights into the teaching/learning relationship.


A condition of MSIP sponsorship of this Student Voice Project had been, from the outset, a sharing with other teachers. A March date existed for a MSIP teacher conference; the intention was to involve the student voice participants. At the January meeting the participants were reminded of this requirement. Teachers knew they would not have definitive data to share by March. They were willing to consider the possibility of engaging other teachers in conversation about the issues and process they were exploring.

The Student Voice Project teachers were asked to be facilitators for the Teachers' Conference: Listening to the Voices. At the February meeting they became involved in planning the conference. The group decided the conference should be a working meeting. After a good deal of deliberation the teachers decided to engage the conference participants in a process similar to the one they had themselves experienced. After a brief introduction to issues about student voice the participants would meet in small groups to discuss their own engagement as learners--the factors that invite them in and those that lead them to reject a learning situation.

The morning discussion produced the following observations:

What engages ME as a learner?
What shuts ME down?
when I feel I have something to contribute
when I feel I have nothing to contribute
time to explore ideas
not enough time to explore; too rigid deadlines
situations where there is an 
expectation of creativity, where I'm allowed to "fail"
when I'm expected to replicate teacher's ideas and opinions
how the time can be used 
students not all doing the same thing 
personalized responses 
individual evaluation
too rigidly laid out a "curriculum"; when there's only one "right" way of doing something; an "omniscient" instructor
hands on learning
memorizing "from the book"
an instructor who really listens to me, who is helpful and offers questions and suggestions that let me find my own way
an instructor who isn't interested in me and / or my opinions; who sends strong verbal cues that I'm not good enough
shared interests 
opportunities to work at my own level 
connections with previous experience 
time for relationship building 
challenges that seem reachable

when I feel 

  • stupid 
  • embarrassed 
  • angry 
  • frustrated 
  • inadequate 

During the afternoon, the Student Voice Project teachers facilitated small group discussions which explored "So What?" The point of these conversations was to help the participants strategize ways of changing their teaching to invite more student engagement. The outcome of the discussion was a realization that listening to students offers clues about what is interfering with their learning and how teachers and administrators might change that.

One participant responded after the conference:

    The best thing out of all of this might be what happened for our school after the conference. As a result of a team of eight of our staff attending we have now formed a student voice group in the school which is facilitated by a staff member. This could have some long term benefits because it has the potential to replace student government structures or to change such structures.

Following the March conference the Student Voice teachers met twice more, once in April and again in May, to consolidate what they had learned and to discuss some writing on student voice they were drafting.


Although this was a brief learning experience (one full day and four afternoon meetings), the participating teachers in the Student Voice Project made significant inroads into understanding student resistance and alienation. As the excerpts from the teachers' inquiries reveal they became more sensitive to what their students are saying both directly and indirectly and have a clearer idea how to make use of this feedback to make their teaching more responsive.

What is clear, however, is this kind of change does not come easily or quickly. The building of a comfortable community among the teachers of the group, the establishment of trust, is necessary before teachers can begin to examine their teaching critically.



What follows are excerpts from writing done by some of the Student Voice Project teachers.

Roger arrived at our high school a year and a half ago to take a regular senior high program. He could barely read. He used many strategies to cover up his reading problem but he was lost in the regular courses.

I met him for the first time when he showed up in my Teacher Advisor class this past September. I asked the students to interview a partner using a sheet of prepared questions and then introduce that person to the rest of the group. Roger could not read most of the questions; he asked only the ones he could read. When it came time for him to introduce his partner Roger had to do it from memory because he could not read what he'd written. The first time through he mumbled and we couldn't hear him so I asked him to repeat the introduction. The second time he wasn't much better. I didn't push the issue. I saw Roger the next day. He walked past my open office door and spied the eagle feather which always sits on my desk. He came over to the desk , picked up the feather and inspected it. By the way he handled the feather I could tell he understood its significance--it connected us. "How come you have this eagle feather at school?" he asked. I explained how it had been given to me by an elder whom I respected. I talked about how I used it in the Native Studies course. His eyes lit up. He had not known the school offered such a course. I offered to look at his schedule to see if he might be able to transfer into the course.

So Roger joined the Native Studies class. The class has provided an opening for him. He is now working on his literacy problems. He's working with teachers who attempt to understand his needs and have worked closely with him on his academic courses. He is doing well. Had Roger not seen the eagle feather and connected with the Native Studies program, I suspect he may have spent another year floating around the school. He needed to be heard and to understand that what he has to share is valuable.

Roger reinforced for me the need to listen to what the Rogers have to say about themselves, their dreams, their abilities, and what is happening (or not happening) for them in school. Is this student voice? I believe it is. Student voice takes on many different shapes and forms. It is crucial that we watch and listen closely, especially with at-risk youth, to catch that 'window of opportunity' which will allow them to engage in a meaningful way (VD June 1997).

Shannon, a fifteen year old, arrived at our rural school in September, 1996. She didn't stay very long, barely five months, in fact. I was one of her teachers and in the short time I knew her she managed to affect me profoundly.

Shannon didn't fit in very well. She was different. Her clothes were drab and baggy, she wore funny looking glasses, she had a nose ring and her ears were pierced from bottom to top. She had a uniquely urban air about her that made her a bit of an outcast at the school.

When she came to my senior two science class in second quarter I noticed she was shy and didn't have friends. She wasn't comfortable talking to me, either. I discovered through her journal that she had a strong dislike for science, it wasn't her thing. She didn't like working in groups (which I did a lot), she wasn't keen on experiments, and problem solving wasn't her strong suit. She failed one of her first tests and when I spoke to her about it she was noticeably upset. "It doesn't matter how much I study, I always bomb on tests." When I asked her how I might help she bluntly said I couldn't; she had to do it on her own. She was suddenly distant and I decided to let the issue drop.

Over the next week I tried looking for ways to hook Shannon, to get her interested in science. Then it came to me in one of her journal responses: "I can usually remember pictures well." I decided to work this information into our next lesson. The students were researching the work of an early biologist. They were preparing a class presentation and they needed to develop a visual aid to help others understand the concept. The criteria for the visual aid were open-ended.

Shannon quickly got her research done and started preparing visuals for her presentation. While other students used combinations of notes, diagrams, or photocopies of the scientist's apparatus, Shannon prepared a cartoon sketch to illustrate Francesco Redl's Hypothesis. When she made her presentation to the class she was able to discuss his research beyond the information in the cartoon and she was able to answer questions about the significance of his scientific discoveries.

In another assignment dealing with cancer, Shannon chose to do a video documentary of a woman diagnosed with breast cancer. She was excited and interested in this project. She asked if she could videotape in Winnipeg and used some of her friends who were amateur actors. She did extensive research on the topic, wrote the script, acted in the documentary, and produced an excellent video dealing with the facts and issues of breast cancer.

As I reflect on this experience I realize that it wasn't that Shannon didn't like science, or wasn't good at it, it was that she needed a different way to learn science. She needed a more creative, visual way to express her learning. She needed to be able to make choices about what she would learn and she needed the freedom to express herself in a way that felt more comfortable. As her teacher, I learned that it was my responsibility to listen to all of Shannon's voices. I listened to her complain about why she didn't like science without dismissing what she had to say. I listened to what she was really telling me, to her unspoken voice, that offered me clues about how to make science more meaningful for her. I had to recognize these negative expressions and turn them into positive opportunities which would allow her to showcase her strengths (DS, October 1997).

I had implemented journal writing in my grade 10 English class because I believed it was a good tool for getting students to connect with their reading. However, two weeks into the novel study unit some of my more vocal students explained they didn't object to writing journals they just ran out of things to say and were finding their journal entries quite meaningless.

I contemplated throwing out the one page limit and the seven entries for the novel but I wanted the students to show me they had actually read the novel they selected, and were thinking about how and what they read. I wanted to hear their personal responses, but my real agenda was to have them learn how to analyze literature by referring to theme, character development, conflict, symbolism, and even irony. So I decided to help students get past their writer's block by giving them specific questions to respond to, instead of just having them answer the usual general questions such as What did you like/dislike? What puzzled you? What predictions can you make? Who does the character remind you of?. I didn't mean to scare the students off, in fact, I asked them afterward to tell me what they thought of the analytical questions. Rae gave me an honest response:

I didn't do anything out of the ordinary to understand the development of character, setting or conflicts because--well I just didn't need to. I felt that this novel was fairly easy to understand so there was no need. I don't really understand symbolism, irony, or satire, so while I was reading I didn't know what to look for.

Instead of being happy with Rae's ability to evaluate her reading, however, I was disappointed that she hadn't seen the significance of a literary analysis. I had read her journal responses and even though she hadn't used all of the literary terminology she certainly understood the inner conflicts of the characters and the main message of the novel.

Although leery about pushing my agenda too far, I still felt there were important concepts I had to make sure we covered. I was hoping the students' learning would come out in the final assignment--a group presentation. Students who had chosen the same novel and who had been sharing journal responses prepared a presentation for the class. I wanted their presentation to show me how much they had learned about their novel, but Rae and her group members had a valuable lesson for me to learn.

Rae's group had a particularly difficult time preparing for the presentation. They were more concerned about covering specific analytical points they thought I wanted to hear than with sharing their own insights about people who, like the novel's main character, had been abused. As I observed their group work I noticed they were quiet and listless. When I conferred with them they told me they were afraid they wouldn't have enough to say and that what they had to say was boring because it was all about characterization and irony.

Finally I asked them what they would find interesting in a presentation. After hearing their responses I realized they all had good ideas about how their main character had grown up and grown apart because of internal conflicts and major societal problems. Their ability to analyze the novel was evident; they just didn't use the terminology and I realized they didn't need it at this point. It was clear they understood the point of the novel--the ugliness of prejudice and the immediate need to stop it. They showed me how to rescue students from drowning in literary detail (CP June 1997).

I first had Daniel as a student in Grade 7. He had transferred in from an even smaller rural school than ours. From the start, he was very shy and introverted and seemed comfortable only with a small number of students who were similarly as shy. He was a follower not a leader and unfortunately tended to passively follow those who got him into trouble. English Language Arts was very difficult for him--written, spoken, or read. Oral presentations were painful and something he chose not to do if given a choice.

I had Daniel again in my Senior 4 Transactional English class. By this time, he had matured considerably--more confident and at ease as a young man but still very shy and quiet in class. ELA was still a difficult subject for him yet by now he had discovered a passion for writing--love poems, underground newspaper, sci-fi fantasy stories, all kept hidden and shared with only a few people (I wasn't one). Working on a computer made it possible for him to create the legible and fluent writing he could not create by hand.

In Transactional English all students select a "burning issue"--an area of personal interest which they investigate and share via a 25-30 minute oral presentation or through a 1200-1500 word essay. Students direct their own learning by establishing a thesis, deciding on research methods, and presentation formats.

I had anticipated that Daniel would select the essay rather than do an oral presentation. His passion for writing made him more mechanically accurate and more at ease with the written word. However, he elected to an oral presentation on "extraterrestials" and their inevitable invasions of earth. Daniel's presentation was good--he made eye contact with the audience, answered questions, presented overheads, outlined sightings and gave his theories about "life out there."

Afterwards I asked him why he had elected to present orally. "Because I wanted everyone to have to listen to what I said." He really believed in his idea of life from outer space and the oral presentation gave him a chance to persuade others.

"Voice" for Daniel was just that--a voice--a chance to be heard. Quite by accident I gave him the chance to express his voice because I framed my assignment in such a way that options, though limited, were given. The freedom to explore something of interest, a passion, spurred Daniel to create his best work so far. Because he wanted to persuade people, he had to organize his thoughts; he had to research and present proof; he had to know his material well enough to field questions. This gave Daniel the confidence to stand before his classmates and defend his beliefs because they were his beliefs and not ones imposed on him.

I always give options for students to present their learning but what surprised me was Daniel's underlying reasons for presenting orally which made me stop and think about "voice" and the different ways it exists. Daniel's motivation for selecting an oral presentation had little to do with what would give him the best marks, or what was less work, but what would give him the best vehicle to express his beliefs to other people. This made the assignment more meaningful and thus opened the door for Daniel (PS, October, 1997).

Two incidents stand out for me as the most important learning that occurred while in the Student Voice group. Interestingly, they teach the same lesson. The first incident occurred while doing some work on a divisional committee on harassment. Our group felt we should obtain students' perspectives on the harassment policy and decided to meet high school and junior high students from across the division to see if we had covered all the various kinds of harassment of which they were aware. Another committee member and I volunteered to do the session and, when it was over, we felt good about the feedback we had received from the students on the policy. However, a short time later, a colleague said she had met with two students who had attended the sessions whose reactions were not very positive. She felt she should share her notes from their conversation.

A couple of weeks later I went over the notes with her. The students' comments were valid, yet I found myself getting defensive. They complained that the session had been too short and they had felt "talked down to" because I had explained vocabulary I thought the younger students mightn't know. I realized the students were in effect teaching me a valuable lesson about supporting what you say you believe by what you do. The session had been too short. Mindful of time away from the classroom, I had tried to do the session over part of a lunch and a preparation period. With a parent or teacher group, I know I would have made sure we had enough time to get the feedback we needed.If I truly valued what the students had to contribute, I should have extended them the same considerations I would a parent or teacher group.

The second incident teaches the same lesson in a different way. Our school improvement committee conducted surveys of staff, students and parents on how our school could change to better engage students in their learning. In sharing data collected from the survey responses with my classes, I discovered that students had had some difficulty with the survey questions themselves. One student asked, "Why didn't you ask about the real issues for students here?" She said she thought the survey focused on issues that weren't that important for students. She cited incidents of harassment, racism, drug use, and apathy on the part of some teachers.

Although some of the questions in the survey did allow students to address issues of concern to them they didn't understand what they questions were asking. "Do you feel safe in this school?" for most students was interpreted to mean "physical safety." They didn't realize safety can have other meanings. We had intended the question to also mean freedom from racial slurs or sexual harassment but the students didn't know this.

I learned that although we had said that student voice was important in our work as a school improvement group, we still had control over what the students said to us because we designed the questions. The feedback that we got from students was only what those questions would allow. Now I see that if we're truly seeking to have students share with us what they believe to be important to school improvement they need to be involved in a way that will allow them to do that. To this end, our committee has decided to form focus groups in order to develop a more comprehensive picture of how students view our school (TR., October, 1997).

For further information on the Student Voice Project please contact:

Dr. Judith M. Newman, Education Consultant, 32 Chelsea Lane, Halifax NS BM 1K9
(902) 443-1536 fax: (902) 443-7420
email: jnewman@lupinworks.com

For further information on the Manitoba School Improvement Program, please contact:

Coordinator, MSIP, 1005 - 401 York Street, Winnipeg MB R3C 0P8
(204) 956-1761 fax: (204) 948-2855


(1) The four articles the teachers received were:

  • Corbett, D. & B. Wilson 1995 Make a Difference With, Not For, Students: A Plea to Researchers and Reformers. Educational Researcher, July: 12-17.
  • Darling-Hammond, L. 1993 Reframing the School Reform Agenda. Phi Delta Kappan, June: 753-761.
  • Kohl, H. 1994 I Wonít Learn From You. In: I Wonít Learn From You. New York: The New Press: 1-32.
  • Newman, J.M. 1987 Learning to Teach by Uncovering Our Assumptions. Language Arts, 64)7): 727-737.

(2) Critical incidents (Newman, 1987) are a tool for engaging in teacher action research. The technique involves capturing perplexing or surprising moments which arise both in the classroom and outside. Keeping track of troubling moments or events over time highlights the problematic in a teacher's daily work. It enables analysis of the issues which are affecting the relationship with students both as learners and as people.

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