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8 ways to empower student voice in your classroom

By Jennifer Snelling 4/20/2016

Shhhhh. We’ve all been in classrooms where it seemed as though the kids just couldn’t be quiet. Frustrating as that may be at times, many educators see the value in student voice and want to help their students channel those voices for good.

Angela Maiers and the Choose2Matter movement make the case that everyone needs to be seen and heard. “So many people, including teachers, think that students are future problem solvers,” she says. “This diminishes their full capacity to contribute today. Kids know the difference when they’re being treated as token voices.”

While many schools have student governments with the intention of giving students a voice, it is often only a few students who participate. Maiers argues that giving all students a voice is something that doesn’t have to be a big organizational shift. In fact, Maiers says, it’s better if hearing students is just part of our everyday expectation.

Here are eight ways to help students raise their voices:

Brainstorm. Since brainstorming is a group activity, it’s an opportunity for kids to participate without pressure. Stress that it’s OK to say whatever comes to mind and that you want ideas from everyone. Pick a problem that needs to be solved or an ethical dilemma that the students care about. It’s a good idea to set a time limit and have someone write down all the ideas, good or bad. As a group, organize and sort the ideas into actionable items. Working together in this way is a good reminder that we are all smarter when we all contribute.

Debate. Anyone who works with teenagers knows that students can be naturally argumentative. Debate is a positive way to engage that side of the brain and use that voice constructively. Classroom discussions provide many topics that are ripe for debate and the discussions can help teach communication and critical-thinking skills. 

Vote. It seems democracy is everywhere this election year, but most students don’t get to vote. Giving them a chance to feel like engaged citizens can start in your classroom. The stakes don’t have to be big to begin with. Let kids vote on the arrangement of the classroom desks. The important thing is that they feel listened to.

Survey. Ask them what they enjoyed about a unit and what wasn’t helpful is another way to give kids an opportunity to express themselves. Just don’t forget that students will know when their opinions are disregarded.

Student-led conferences. We’re all familiar with traditional parent-teacher conferences, where the adults get to talk about the kid behind his or her back. More and more schools are looking to student-led conferences, where the student is given the opportunity to present what they have been doing in class, as well as identify their own strengths and areas to improve. Such conferences empower students by allowing them to take responsibility for their own education.

Social media. Most of the time when adults talk about students and social media, it’s about all the negatives — time-wasting, cyberbullying, the decline of face-to-face interaction. Why not take a platform that students are comfortable with and encourage them to put it to good use? Students who may not feel comfortable speaking in front of a classroom of their peers may express some pretty awesome ideas on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics has said that, “Engaging in various forms of social media is a routine activity that research has shown to benefit children and adolescents by enhancing communications, social connection and even technical skills.”

Genius Hour. Daniel Pink coined the term in his book Drive, and Maiers has been a big advocate of using the concept in schools. Originally used by innovative business leaders, Genius Hour is class time set aside for students to work on their own passion projects. 

Projects. While it’s great to encourage student voice inside a classroom, sometimes the best way to do that is to open the classroom doors. Online resources such as TakingITGlobal allow students to connect with other students who are passionate about solving real-world problems. Doing a unit on energy conservation and your kids have great ideas? Connect them with other activists and see what they can do.

Jennifer Snelling writes about food, travel and education. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, with her husband and two daughters, whom she loves for their innate understanding of technology and for many other reasons. 

Read a full-length article on how to empower student voice in the ISTE member magazine entrsekt. Not a member? Join today.

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