Tuesday, September 29, 2015

If Owning The Learning Is The Goal, Student Voice Is The Means

If you read all of the academic writing related to the future of work in a global economy, the bottom line can be summed up by saying that today’s students (tomorrow’s professionals), have to be more independent, self-reliant, creative, innovative, flexible and entrepreneurial. They need to be ultimately ready for a variety of daily challenges in a quickly evolving job environment.

This is at the heart of why education should be and is trying to respond through learning that is more indicative of a 21st century environment. So, if we want our future professionals to be the aforementioned, then we have move towards having our students “own their learning” now. To own their learning, educators have to embrace the STUDENT VOICE.


As a former high school media teacher and student activities director, I made a career of out of engaging, inviting, celebrating and empowering the student voice. I believed in students and wanted them to believe in themselves. So, I gave them huge amounts of trust and responsibility where their voices emerged and incredible results followed.

Embracing Student Voice cannot be faked or manufactured. Educators will have to learn to approach everything we do from the student perspective and with the students in mind. Here are three areas of practice that I have employed in order to accomplish this:

  1. Representation: Voice is represented by participation and opportunities to be heard. Traditionally, we have Student Government for this role. They were supposed to represent the student body for any issues that would be communicated to or need to be blessed by the administration or staff. Student Government and Leadership has expanded greatly over the years into a variety of areas, but schools could still do much more to include student representation. Ideally, students could and should be represented on all teacher/staff hiring panels, as well as committees, projects and more. What if teachers and site leaders solicited student participation in everything from PLC’s to Professional Development to Staff Meetings? For several years at my previous student-focused high school, we had students participate in a panel for the first teacher in-service day as an example, as well as on every interview/hiring panel.
(image courtesy of the California State Board of Education)

  1. New Roles and Responsibilities: Again, we have had students in various school roles in addition to that of student for years. We have had Teacher Assistants, Cafeteria Volunteers, Attendance Monitors, Class Monitors, Drum Majors, ASB Officers and many others. But it’s time to ratchet that up a bit. Students are ready, willing and very able to take much more responsibility and greater roles related to the success of the learning environment and school culture. We need to think about students in various leadership roles related to their academic programs. Think about each and every class or program having a coordinator or team of coordinators for things like Social Media, Communications, Documentarian, Technology, Audio/Video, and Designer just to name a few. As we move towards more project-based approaches, can we have students take on various roles in the execution of the project or challenge. My school created Student Project Coordinator as a means to expand the role and ownership of students. Students who were advanced in a given curricular area, or showed tremendous enthusiasm and skill, could apply for this position that had students in the role of facilitator of learning. Instead of Teacher Assistant, or gloried gopher, a Student Project Coordinator lead sessions, coached small groups, organized model lessons and demonstrations, did re-teaching and more.

  1. Student Feedback: Students have good ideas and are more than capable of providing feedback on what works in the classrooms and what can help facilitate learning. All teachers and school sites should survey students on a regular basis about their learning experiences and growth needs. My last school decided to survey our students quarterly in each class about how their learning was developing, what instructional practices were helping and what they needed in terms of specific academic support. Site Leaders can also learn by surveying students about everything from school culture to school safety. Additionally, students should be provided their peers feedback on their work and projects. In a project-based environment, peer critique and feedback are essential in formative assessment.

Naturally, one could create other avenues for student voice, and ultimately learning ownership, to emerge. And that’s the point. If you believe in the power of student voice and ownership, one should continually look to expand the implementation.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

21st Century High School Student Bill of Rights


Since I began teaching in 1990, I have repeatedly heard the term “reform” with regards to our educational system. And as someone who has always believed in and practiced teaching that worked to be real world, relevant and student-oriented, I can still get excited about the “possibilities” of real change. However, even with all of the classrooms, schools and some systems that have embraced new standards, new technology, project-based approaches, democratization/student voice and more, it’s almost appalling how little has changed in many of our nation’s high school classrooms. They are still dominated by outdated pedagogies, resources, activities and learning environments. Many still live and die by the lecture, low level note taking, and low level quizzes and assessments, as well as teacher/administrator mindsets not in line with anything related to 21st century workplaces or careers.
This lack of overall progress has lead me to be more anxious, adamant and even angry about the need and demand for real significant and systemic change for our high school students. This has forced me to analyze more closely how real change occurs. And without citing every step forward historically, it does seem that no real social, cultural, economic or pedagogical change take place in our societies until the people that are affected the most ban together and demand it. So I am now convinced, more than ever, that high school will not make the global changes necessary until high school students themselves literally rise up and intelligently articulate for something much better.
So it seems that a 21st century education has to become a student rights issue. I have written about this before (see Edu Change & Advocacy blog post here). And when I had the great fortune on opening a new, 21st century high school in 2008, we began there with our schools Student Bill of Rights (Minarets High School Student Bill of Rights). But now I think it’s time for us to adopt a 21st Century High School Bill of Rights for all. Maybe if we publish the document, we can work to get students armed with the right information to know what questions to ask, what requests to make and what rights they probably have. Indeed, I hope to challenge legislators, educators, policy makers, change agents and students to work towards an agreed upon and approved 21st Century High School Bill of Rights (see proposed document below).
Additionally, I would also like to launch several challenges:

  1. What if elected officials moved beyond adopting standards and actually passed legislation with elements of a 21st century education being law and non-negotiable? I don’t care at which level these things are passed, but we might need to make 21st century learning environments law and the outdated practices outlaw.
  2. What if educational leaders/practitioners/advocates organized and partnered with business leaders, concerned citizens and others to truly inform students of what they deserve and should have? We already have many of these groups and organizations in place, but they need to get to the students and empower them to demand change.
  3. What if elected student body officers and leaders began to work on real educational and learning change? Fighting for a better homecoming, rally or dress code can be fun, but your duty could be to truly transform your peers lives by changing what happens on a daily basis in their classrooms.
This is a call to action. Our role as educators will be to empower students so they can articulate the 21st century education they need and deserve.