Developing Student Voice

It has been pretty well established that education needs to evolve. And, despite the glacier-like pace, the industry is moving forward. Educators are looking for ways to flip their classrooms in an effort to maximize time spent with kids. Technology is not only used as a toy or “wow” factor anymore. It’s integration is now about practicality and how it can help blast through perceived ceilings when it comes to teaching and learning. A century old practice of homework is finally starting to take some heat. Progress is being made because leaders are willing to speak out for reform. Finally, the long standing, outdated traditions of the education system are being challenged to better educate today’s young minds. 

It may not be going as fast as some of us may want, but it is happening. But, there is one frontier that needs to be addressed before all of those other reforms can really have an impact. You see, all of these practices, best home learning strategies, excellent technology integrations are worthless if curriculum is still stuck in the top-down education tradition. Curriculum is still designed in the model of “here is the content that you must learn in this fashion and in this order”. We still pick how kids will learn. We still write curriculum as a one size fits all. And, as we all know, one size rarely fits all.

This may be the most difficult change to make in the industry. And, to a degree, it is understandable. Districts have to make sure they are covering state standards for thousands of children while taking into account budgets, teaching styles, technology access, class size, the socio-economic factors that kids bring into the room, and a myriad of other things that make it difficult to write effective curriculum.

As an English Teacher, I have always tried to make my classroom one that is engaging, passion driven, and a place where students could question each other, me, and the world. Early on in my career, I was more beholden to the strict curriculum of “read this book now, answer this analysis question, and move on.” Sure, I’d have my creative writing and journals, but it wasn’t until I got about 10 years in did I start to question the “why” of our curriculum. Once I began questioning “the why” of our curriculum, it became apparent that curriculum is merely a vehicle to teach skills–the skills that all kids will need in order to be successful in whatever path they choose in life. Since those paths are never the same, the way in which we teach kids can’t be the same.

That questioning led me to believe that my classroom was charged with the following:

  • Creating an environment where students can find their passions
  • Creating an environment where students felt comfortable to question the standard, question practices, and question my methods.
  • Creating an environment where students had a voice in what and how they were learning.
  • Creating an environment where students felt empowered and that what they have to say matters.
  • Creating an environment where students knew they were writers and that their words could change the world.
  • Creating an environment where students could demonstrate skills learned through their own passions and interests, not through prescribed methods and templates.
  • Creating an environment where students could be leaders while also realizing that they were a part of something bigger.
  • Creating an environment where the “final product” could take many forms.
  • Creating an environment where failure was part of the process and to accept that learning is rarely linear. Failure and roadblocks happen during any process. Successful people learn from that and adapt their process to create a better final outcome.
  • Creating an environment where students would look for more than one side of an issue. Successful people realize that there are multiple perspectives to any issue, idea, or concept.
  • Creating an environment where we seek to validate information, not just take it because it was written or presented to the public.
  • Creating an environment where we not only identify problems, but create solutions.

So, little by little I tried to change my classroom. Socratic Seminar replaced lectures. Literature Circles with each group choosing their own literature became more of the norm. Student presentations, class news magazines, journal writing, debates, and anything else that could put me in the background and kids at the forefront of the room became the norm. The standard lecture wasn’t abandoned, it was just relegated to “when necessary” rather than being the standard. It wasn’t just me doing this. A bunch of my department colleagues were pushing my thinking. Social Studies teachers were into project based learning. I was one of many.

A couple of years ago, I received an email from a colleague with a link to this new course that College Board was offering. He wrote, “this looks like something you’d like.” Truth be told, I didn’t look at it right away. It was a new AP course and I was always leery of AP courses because of their limited audience. But, this colleague is always persistent. When he believes in something, there is nothing that stops him. He came into my office to talk about it. I clicked the link and realized this course was pretty much everything I believed in. Every one of my classroom beliefs listed above was checked off in this course. I immediately went to my Principal.

He was equally as excited. The course looked great and it looked like it could fill a void in our 10th grade English offerings. My Principal, however, is quite thorough when it comes to things like this. I still have the English Teacher mentality where I just get all excited about something and want to jump in. He reigned me in and scheduled visits to other schools that offer the course. After a few visits, we were convinced that this was the right course to bring in for today’s students. I saw kids questioning things they read. I saw them working on different projects. I saw them engaged and passionate when they spoke. I wanted my students to have that environment too. After meeting with our Assistant Superintendent, who immediately saw the benefits and gave us the green light, we were ready to go.

The Capstone Program is quite thorough. Each Teacher must go to a week-long training. At first, I had chosen a Teacher for this program. She is a young, dynamic Teacher who already had her classroom in this type of mindset. But, she was unable to accept the assignment this year (for a great reason—motherhood). My original intention was to just steal the setup and employ it in my classes, not to be the actual AP Teacher. But, it was decided that I would go for the training and teach the course this year. While I was initially nervous about teaching an AP course, I can safely say that this course is the single most relevant course we can offer a student. The best part is that the methods can be applied to any content area. While I was at training, there were Science Teachers, English Teachers, and even a Math Teacher in the sessions.

What’s so great about this course? Well, the first thing is that it is student driven. Students have the freedom to explore their areas of interest. There is no prescribed, one size fits all, topic. Students have a voice in what they want to immerse themselves in.

Seminar is based on the QUEST Model. Question (challenge and expand your current knowledge), Understand (contextualize arguments and understand author’s claims), Evaluate (consider individual perspectives as well as big picture of an issue), Synthesize (combine your knowledge, ideas, and perspectives into an argument), and Team, Transform, Transmit (collaborate, reflect, and communicate your argument to an audience) are the pillars of the Seminar course.

Aren’t those the skills colleges say they are looking for? Aren’t those the skills that practically every profession would want? More importantly, aren’t those the skills that all good, responsible citizens should have?

The course allows for the skills to be front and center, not the curriculum. At the start of the course, we surveyed for topics of interest. Students were asked about their passions. They were asked about issues that got them upset or issues they thought were important. For the first foray into this type of thinking and learning, we decided that the class would choose a theme for everyone to work with. We would learn the skills of evaluating sources for bias, finding multiple points of view and multiple stakeholders in an issue, how to synthesize all of that information, how to make an argument, how writers construct arguments, how to work with a team, how to effectively communicate, how to identify limitations in research, and how to offer realistic solutions to problems.

Each of my three classes chose an area of social protest. One class chose the “Take a Knee” movement that was in the news with the NFL season. The other two classes chose to deal with feminism, but in two, distinct ways. One chose about whether or not feminism was hurting or helping. The other chose to focus on the pay gap issue. The beginning of the year required more direct teaching as students needed to see a model of how to evaluate articles, perspectives, and motives. They needed to see a model of how to look at a piece of art as an argument or how to watch a satirical video and see the real purpose.

After that early period of modeling, students were then left to truly experience the purpose of the course: to explore the world through their own passions. The first part of the course is about working with a team on a larger issues. Students selected their own teams and began to formulate a group question or issue to solve. Since groups had their own choice, topics were varied. One group asked whether or not college athletes should be paid. Another asked whether or not doctors should be accountable for prescription drug abuse. Another asked if race influences the justice system. Another worked through the issues of gun control. And, there were so many more. Students were looking at issues that mattered to them. More importantly, they are being asked to be a voice in those issues as they must provide recommendations.

Once the groups chose their questions, each group member chose a perspective to explore the issue through. One group could have economics, historical, societal, and scientific perspectives while another group could have philosophical, environmental, political, and futuristic. The point is that every issue isn’t just viewed through one perspective. Once students chose their perspective (lens in Seminar-speak), they would research through that perspective and write a paper. Students would learn the concepts of peer reviewed sources and how to find a balance of sources. This was the portion of the course where the writer’s workshop kicked in. I would walk into class and students would be ready to conference about their writing. I would have 20 to 30 conversations each period about individual writing. We would talk about claim development, using sources properly, documenting those sources, and, yes, even go over some grammar once they were done with a draft. Individualized time with each kid, the exact opposite of a one size, fits all.

Once students were done with their individual part, they returned to their group with information from their perspective. Groups then had to synthesize all of that information to come up with an eight to ten minute oral presentation. This portion not only taught about working with a team, but it also taught practical skills such as how to properly use media for presentations, how to prepare for an oral presentation, and how to effectively communicate the information. The groups then gave their presentation in front of an audience of their peers and then had to effectively respond to defense questions about their argument and their group process. How many professions would love for applicants to come to them with these skills already refined?

Even more important than all of that, students were thinking and challenging themselves. They were setting their own deadlines. They knew the end date, but they were given the freedom to find their own process. Those who support homework as a means of developing responsibility should see that this seminar method actually does develop responsibility. Students are responsible to themselves, to each other, and to the overall goals of the team. Students are responsible to manage their time, not given daily “do this for a grade by tomorrow” rote tasks.

Some will say that this is an AP class and that’s why it is working out so well. That is a myopic point of view. All students have passions. All students need to develop the skills of gathering information, evaluating that information, and synthesizing that information. All students need to be able to develop and defend an argument. All students need to develop the skills of communicating that argument in multiple mediums. All students need to develop skills that allow them to be productive and accountable members of a team.

Every classroom in every subject area can utilize this way of exploring. Social Studies teachers can use their curriculum to have students explore issues of a time period and apply either apply an argument to that particular time period or to today’s world. Science can explore issues in the field in the same way. Even Math can show the practicality of learning concepts rather than just having students complete worksheets.

It has never been more important to develop young people who can use their voice in the world. That voice, however, needs the practical skills in order to be effectively heard and to know, exactly, what it is speaking out against. We need that for our future citizens. And, we already see this generation doing an excellent job of advocating for itself against a system that wants to keep them quiet. Our duty as an institution is to arm them with the skills of critical thought, the ability to identify agendas and bias, the ability to see more than their point of view, and the ability to craft and communicate an argument. We can use any literature or content as a backdrop for developing those important skills.

Those skills are the ones necessary to be productive leaders in college, the workforce, and, most importantly, as citizens of the world. We, the education system, cannot ignore that. That is why we must evolve. That is why we must change our classroom mindset that rids us of required curriculum content and shifts us to required skills taught.