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.
THE CONFERENCE: LISTENING
TO THE VOICES
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
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
too rigidly laid out a "curriculum"; when
there's only one "right" way of doing something; an
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
opportunities to work at my own level
connections with previous experience
time for relationship building
challenges that seem reachable
when I feel
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
For further information on the Manitoba School Improvement Program,
Coordinator, MSIP, 1005 - 401 York Street, Winnipeg MB R3C 0P8
(204) 956-1761 fax: (204) 948-2855
(1) The four articles the teachers received
- 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:
- 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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