Tips for increasing student voice

Start with less teacher talk and more student-centered learning
By: | September 5, 2019

Matthew X. Joseph is director of curriculum, instruction and assessment in Leicester Public Schools in Massachusetts.

Today’s students are experiential learners; they learn by discovering rather than following. They like to interact with content to explore and draw conclusions. Students enjoy taking control of their learning and putting knowledge into practice. Relevant learning increases content retention and student engagement. So how do we do this?

Start with less teacher talk and more student-centered learning. Students don’t come to school to watch teachers work. We need to create classrooms where students are defending and explaining their ideas rather than regurgitating facts. Giving students a list of options from which they can choose will increase student voice in the classroom.

Over 80 years ago, John Dewey, American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, said, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” These words still ring true, especially in the implementation of technology in the classroom. If teachers are not learning and implementing new practices, they are failing to prepare students for tomorrow.

As leaders, we can suggest and support this shift with some of these ideas:

  • Student-created units. Create an avenue for students to identify a topic(s) of high interest. This will add relevance to learning and provide intrinsic motivation.
  • Unit trailers. Once students design learning goals, lesson ideas, and learning outcomes, have them create movie-like trailers for their units. This will build excitement and create a need to know.
  • Classroom talk shows. Talk shows like Ellen, The Tonight Show, and Jimmy Kimmel Live often feature experts on a topic. Students can write a script for their unit, and then “go on a talk show” to be interviewed and thus teach the “audience” about the topic.
  • Community projects. A way to model good citizenship is to complete a community service project. Select a cause(s) that is/are meaningful to you and your students, and relate to the year’s learning and grade-level content. Have the students design a community service project bridging the two.
  • Flexible learning spaces. Let students move, work in groups, or work sitting on the floor. Students want more than the “sit and get” classroom—they want to be actively involved in their learning.

Lead By Example

Leadership is action, not position. Teachers will be more willing to embed new ideas into classrooms and give students a voice if they see the leader modeling new ideas and taking risks, not just implementing mandates. By modeling and giving teachers a voice, administrators can energize a staff to implement new ideas

A few recommendations for staff meetings:

  • Toastings. Why do we only make toasts on special occasions? We can recognize accomplishments all year. At staff meetings allow staff members to be toasted by their peers with a specific compliment or accomplishment.
  • Culture lunch. Take a break from the usual staff lunches and connect with local family-owned restaurants to learn about their culture and the food they serve. Feature one restaurant a month (or more) during staff lunch and invite them in to give a little history of their family business and to cook/serve their food.
  • Gameday staff meeting. Too often, staff meetings function as a means to get information out to everyone. Instead, use meetings to host a game day with activities ranging from trivia to video bowling to outdoor cornhole.

Giving Students a Voice

Leaders modeling voice with teachers will provide them with the flexibility and psychological safety to embed more student voice into their lessons. Giving suggestions further increases teacher motivation because it shows you are invested.

Classroom instruction has been shifting dramatically. Using today’s technology in conjunction with the creativity of today’s young minds, teachers can shift from static to dynamic learning environments. Innovative instruction is not only about “thinking” differently, but it’s also about “acting” differently. As leaders, we must work to promote and support new, innovative ideas into lesson plans to increase student voice in the classroom.

Matthew X. Joseph is the director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment in Leicester Public Schools. He will be a featured speaker at DA’s FETC 2020.

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