The Reality Of Helping Students Find Their Voice

I made one promise to myself when I decided that I would write about education. I promised that I wouldn’t just share the successes or give a highlight reel piece in which I looked like the model teacher knowing exactly what to do in every situation. That has never been my reality so I never want to come off like that. I promised myself that I wouldn’t become what I most hated about the teacher movie generation–a writer who navigates every problem and finds success.

At its best, teaching is difficult. Getting a concept or a skill across to a group of kids is never easy, especially when the goal is to get all 30 kids in the room to mastery. Getting a group of kids to believe that they have a voice and can make a difference in the world is even more difficult. That challenge and the reward of seeing something click for a kid is what keeps us coming back.

But, writing about education, even when you share the struggles, still can give people the wrong idea. Articles, stories can make it seem like once you overcome an obstacle, everything just falls into place. It rarely works like that, even for the most seasoned teachers. Nothing is ever linear.

Last week, I wrote a piece for The Robb Review about how I am trying to get my freshmen to realize that they have a voice, that they have the skills to make their voice heard, and that they can make a difference in the world. They are an amazing group of kids; they just have to realize that.

The piece was honest. We did get off to a great start with the unit.

They searched their social media threads. They found issues they cared about. We did those exercises to learn ethos, pathos, and logos. We had a great week. They were engaged and, more importantly, they learned. I did conclude the article with the caveat that there would probably days “when the lesson falls flat or they aren’t as passionate.”

That caveat turned out to be quite prophetic.

Those two things happened the very next day after I submitted the article. I went into class feeling pretty good about my plan, where we were going, and the fact that I could share it with people. I figured we would really dig into issues that they care about, find one, get to learn how to research all the different perspectives, analyze argument construction, and learn how to present their own arguments in multiple forms of media. I had a plan; it all seemed to make sense, especially since they bought into it last week.

I walked into class and wanted them to find more stories from their newsfeeds. I figured it would be a great way to start the week; they could have some time to find some interesting bits of news and then talk with each other. Some kids had a list of potential topics already so I thought it would be one of those magical periods where they would talk about their issues, look at some perspectives, argue a bit, and really learn things about the world, just like we did a week ago.

Except, it wasn’t.

It was a struggle.

The class was quiet. I could tell that many of them were stressed about math homework. Others were talking about their big social studies project. And, yes, others were learning the hand gestures for a Tik Tok. Only a handful was looking for news on their feeds.

I’ll admit that my first instinct was to take it personally. I felt the thought of “why aren’t they doing my work?” roll across my brain. And, I do believe that this is a natural instinct of many of us. When kids don’t immediately get engaged, it is a difficult thing to get over since we put our hearts into each lesson. We spend time thinking of how to get them to be all in. We are constantly looking to get better. So, when they don’t “like” it or just aren’t into it, it’s easy to take it personally.

Thankfully, I was able to fight that instinct. I’ll admit, even 22 years in, I fall into that sometimes. But, I was able to avoid it. I had to change gears pretty quickly.

I looked at the handful of kids who were actually into it and told them that they would share their stories soon. After a couple of more minutes, I asked them all to put their phones and another tech away. They did. Then, I asked a couple of kids to share.

One student brought up the Major League Baseball cheating scandal involving the Houston Astros. It was a topic I had an interest in and mixed just enough technology to get some others interested. That led to a student who wasn’t engaged in the original activity to bring up the data tracking and privacy issues that they face online and with their social media apps. This got more kids involved. The period was salvaged in that kids started to think about important issues.

The keyword is salvaged.

It was not even remotely close to what I wanted to accomplish. My original plan was to have them look through their feeds, find one article and analyze the layout. I had the small hope that they might start to develop a working claim. So, that magic I had the week before was gone. But, I managed to get through and at least make some small progress. I revamped my plan a bit to work on claim development for the next day.

The next day came and I walked them through a model claim for me. I gave my example topic, using the cheating scandal from the day before.

We walked through it together. Technically, it was a sound lesson. But, they were not into it. At all.

Something wasn’t right. I couldn’t figure out what was holding them back. They are great kids so I wasn’t sure why they weren’t firing answers at me. Then it hit me…I’m getting them to commit something on paper. Writing is difficult enough. Now, I’m asking them to write about some really big issue. They need some confidence. It’s not enough for me to tell them that they can make a difference and that their voice matters. It’s not enough for me to tell them that they can write. They need a bit of success in order to build the confidence to write about these big things. So, I put the idea of them writing their own claim on hold…again.

I decided that they should work on just developing a claim with a topic we had already worked with. Earlier in the year, we worked a project in which they had to create their own school. They liked it. They are invested in it, but they also know that it is something they’ve already done. So, each group was tasked with arguing why their school model should be chosen. They were given two days to develop a presentation that proved their claim.

I’ll admit that those two days were far from perfect, but they wound up finishing a presentation and are ready to argue why their school should be chosen.

They have a claim. They have support. They have information from the other side (counterclaim). They have a solution. That’s an argument. They are also using their voice to show what they feel is wrong with their current education system and propose new ideas. All of that is good and, ultimately, the point of all of this.

The hope is that this will translate to them seeing that they can synthesize information on any topic, do their own research, and then use their voice to tell the world. I think they are ready for that. And, I am sure that they will all turn in some amazing work in the end. My plan to that endpoint will likely have to change again, but I will keep changing in order to get them there.

And, I think that’s the main point. I need to keep adapting in order to get them to where I think they should be. I can’t get upset if my plan doesn’t work. I can’t take it personally when they aren’t into it like I think they should be. I can’t just plow ahead because I had a plan and think that they should just follow along. I can’t just quit either. And, finally, I can’t think it is a failure just because it didn’t work the first time, the second time, and even the third time (I could go on and on).

Hopefully, this follow-up to last week’s piece will help people like me. We are the ones who care but aren’t perfect every day.

Our classrooms don’t even resemble a movie scene. We’ll have our magical moments like I had last week. We’ll have the fall on our faces moments like I had this week. We should cherish the former and learn from the latter.

No matter what, we just have to keep two things in mind. One, as long as we keep the relationship with our kids front and center, everything will work out. Second, teaching isn’t like it is in the movies or in blog posts. It isn’t perfect and there is no magic formula. There’s a failure. But, that failure isn’t an end. It’s just a signal that there’s another way to reach your classes.