If we want to identify the root causes of stress and disengagement for young people, if we really want to know about the student experience – we have to hear it from the students themselves. While there are many interventions and strategies school leaders can implement to promote student well-being and engagement with learning, today I want to focus on one of the most effective and tangible approaches – centering student voice.
When we take the time to collect data from students – whether its quantitative data from surveys or qualitative data from focus groups, fishbowls, and other listening-in protocols – the data can better inform change efforts. Likewise, inviting students into important conversations and soliciting their feedback can produce inspiring results. The themes that emerge allow schools to better understand where the pain points exist so they can take concrete steps such as piloting different interventions or implementing specific professional development.
CHALLENGE SUCCESS’S STUDENT ADVISORY COMMITTEE (SAC)
I spent over 20 years in the classroom, and now work as a School Program Director for Challenge Success. In the past year, I have taken on a new project working with two teens who chose to be part of our inaugural Student Advisory Committee. We established the SAC to fill a gap in our own organizational structure – we were promoting student voice but didn’t have any students directly guiding our work. The founding team included two young women in their senior year of high school, one in California, another in Massachusetts. Both students are passionately engaged in their academics and extracurriculars, they share a concern for the physical and mental health of their peers, and they began with a strong understanding of Challenge Success’s mission.
From speaking on panels to co-facilitating workshops, from interviewing fellow students to offering feedback on our workshop content, these two women have contributed to our organization in a myriad of ways. As was the case with students in my own classroom, I was inspired by how authentically these young women showed up when given the responsibility of being co-pilots in our journey. At a recent meeting, we reflected on the year and what this partnership meant to each of us. During that conversation, I was reminded again of this:
The practice of centering student voice and promoting opportunities for agency truly has a profound effect on young people.
But, don’t take it from me. Here are some of their reflections – in their own words.
What does centering student voice look like at your school? That is, where do you see adults at your school inviting and valuing student voices?
ANISHA: One of my teachers is very open about wanting student feedback on class structure and content. After every unit we complete in class, we have a 10-minute discussion where we are encouraged to offer feedback. These sessions fostered student-teacher relationships as well as got students to feel comfortable opening up about their true thoughts and opinions.
In the larger school context, we have a Principal Advisory Committee, which includes a small group of students from each grade who meet regularly with the principal to offer feedback.
I’ve also appreciated how responsive our student council has been to student requests for the school. We have a student board representative who takes our feedback to the school board so that they can hear what the students would like.
ANNALISE: Everytime a student enters my psychology class, the teacher says “hello ___!” He calls me by my actual name, and he does it every time. This is such a small detail that can mean the world in terms of centering student voice by making a safe environment. Teenagers are sensitive. If they detect one thing that means a classroom is an unsafe place to speak up, they won’t speak up! That’s why it’s so important to take the first step as the adult in this process.
Other ways I’ve seen teachers do this include letting students take lead on their own work (creative freedom on assignments), opening up about their own lives in an appropriate way, giving time for social interaction (group projects, pair share, etc.), and creating a safe environment for mistakes. I had a creative writing teacher who asked open-ended questions during class, and even if he did have an answer in mind before asking the question, he didn’t show it. Every time someone participated, he acted like it was a brand new idea he’d never heard of before. He acknowledged their bravery, which sent messages to others that they should speak out too. Once teachers make that safe environment and continue to support student autonomy and voice, it spills over outside of the classroom.
What are some highlights of your experience as a founding member of the Challenge Success SAC?
ANISHA: I believe that we are really making a change and that the work we do is important. One of my favorite parts of being on the SAC is connecting with students from around the country and hearing their experiences that align with problems I face at my own school. It’s validating for me to know that I’m not the only person feeling this way and that there are other people who also want to make a difference.
Another highlight was when I got to be the student panelist on the Challenge Success fundraiser last fall. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience – a seventeen year old girl sitting on a panel with PhDs from Stanford! I was able to convey my thoughts and my experience to people who could take that information to heart and do something about it.
Working on the committee has definitely established that I need to raise my voice and speak out when I feel there is something to be said. And it’s okay if others don’t feel the same way because we all are working towards that common goal of school welfare with all participants involved.
ANNALISE: I gained confidence in myself and for my future. To be given the chance to lead, to talk, and have people listen, is proof that I have the strength to take charge of my life.
For example, I led a student workshop during the spring conference. I was nervous and tripped over my words every other sentence, but the students listened and eagerly participated. I got to lead. As a student, we don’t often get to do that. We are talked down to. The only time we get to stand up is once we grow up. But those are the walls that groups like the student advisory committee tear down.
I was shown that I don’t just have to listen, I can speak. I can interview people, I can make videos to empower other students like me, I can lead workshops, I can speak alongside adults in meetings, and I can sit with new people from around the country and comfortably talk. I was given the opportunity to be a part of something, and now it’s taught me to go out and take chances I always thought I’d be too scared to take.
OUTCOMES OF CENTERING STUDENTS’ VOICES
As is clear from Anisha and Annalise’s reflections, when done intentionally, the action of soliciting student feedback and stories can actually promote well-being and engagement with learning. When we ask students to share their experience, wisdom, and insights, when we listen with an open mind and heart, it can manifest an increased sense of belonging, engagement, and agency.
If we truly want to transform the student experience, truly want our students to have more balance and less stress, we must listen to the wisdom of our youth.
“Once student voice is centered and flourishing, students feel like they have more control over their lives. They try harder and gain more confidence in themselves which improves their overall mental health.” -Annalise
Jennifer Coté, M.A., is a School Program Director for Challenge Success. She facilitates professional development and parent education workshops and supports Challenge Success schools across the country. Jen is a passionate educator with over 25 years of experience in schools – teaching, coaching, developing curriculum, and empowering both students and teachers alike. Most recently, she worked as a classroom teacher inspiring young minds with her love of mathematics at Marin Academy. Her graduate work in curriculum studies and teacher education fueled her desire to help teachers and schools look at ways they can marry curriculum and pedagogy to create more equitable, engaging, and effective classrooms.