Why two educators say elevating student voice is key to building back better

'We were busting the myth that student voice is a privilege and making it part of our culture that student voice is a right,' educator says.

Vocabulary lessons probably look the same in schools across the country: students get a list of words, they define them to use in a sentence, and hopefully remember those definitions to pass the weekly test. Teachers can also look forward to reading these new words in written assignments and hearing them in casual conversation, right?

Because of two important developments, however, vocabulary is now taught a bit differently in Kimberly Hellerich’s English classes at East Windsor High School in Connecticut. Students are now collaborating around learning new words in station rotations. As importantly, the idea for the new approach came from students themselves. “Their voices matter,” says Hellerich, who was a principal before she began work on her doctorate. “If I’m going to be the best teacher I can be, I need to respond to what my students say works for them.”

Student voice was surging in importance pre-COVID among K-12 educators seeking new ways to engage learners in the curriculum and build more authentic relationships with young people. Now, in a growing number of districts, teachers and administrators are elevating student voice as a key step in bouncing back from COVID.

Hellerich is a big believer in establishing class contracts with her students early in the year to lay out how teaching and learning will take place. She holds community circles at the beginning of most of her classes to gather student input on everything from new instructional approaches to how they spent their weekends to barriers they are facing in their learning. Students also have the right to ask for a circle to discuss a topic. Recently, a student asked one class to discuss the impact of school dress code violations in a neighboring town.

Her students are also choosing the books they read (one class recently insisted on The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian) and how they will display their learning. “We’ve also been able to turn a lesson around in the moment because my students articulated what was getting in the way and we reached a resolution that we all agreed on,” Hellerich says.

Voice lessons

3 ways to strengthen student voice:

  • Along with informal conversations and surveys, educators should conduct focus groups and student panels to ensure feedback is coming from all students, particularly from historically underrepresented racial/ethnic groups
  • Incorporate student voice into more decisions, such as grading and assessments. Allowing students to self-reflect on their grades can lead to a more equitable evaluation of learning.
  • Focus on elevating student voice in high needs schools

Source: RAND Corporation 2021 Learn Together Surveys.

Several student voice models were detailed in a 2019 report from the Center for American Progress.

Hellerich surveys her students up to three times a year and most recently, more than 90% said they felt their voices were valued in her classroom. She also reaches out to students one-on-one if they have been hesitant to share their thoughts in class discussions.”The key piece is that teachers and administrators listen to students and make changes, even if they’re small or incremental,” Hellerich says. “That change piece is what’s most important because otherwise, kids are not going to share if they feel like it’s going off into a vast nowhere.”

‘Student voice is a right’

COVID—and school lockdowns more specifically—upended some of the big strides educators in Nevada’s Washoe County School District had made to diversify student advisory councils, says Michelle Hammond, the central office’s student voice coordinator. That’s because, during remote instruction, students she recruited from underrepresented groups were more likely to lose contact with schools than were the more affluent students who typically volunteer for the councils. “We were busting the myth that student voice is a privilege, and making it part of our culture that student voice is a right,” Hammond says.

This year, Hammond and her team use the challenges identified in school data to talk to students about solutions and engage them in developing the action plans that will be adopted by administrators. Hammond also has been working to re-engage students who lost touch with the councils and assure that students “have a seat at the table” on various district- and school-level committees.

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Another key part of her work is collecting student input—from events such as town hall meetings—and sharing it with other administrators when feedback touches on their areas of responsibility. For instance, students have been advocating for an even greater focus on equity, diversity and inclusion, and on mental health and well-being.

Students have also shared recently that just because the worst of the pandemic may have passed, their lives have not suddenly returned to normal. Many of them are still trying to cope with the emotional ordeals of the last two years. “They feel adults have this perception that COVID has ended and academic engagement is expected to rebound right away,” Hammond says.

She has also been offering ongoing coaching to a group of teachers she calls her “student voice” champs. Beyond her own work, she is seeing a greater emphasis on student voice at the building level as more principals are involving students in the development of School Performance Plans.

Educators looking to increase the impact of student voice in their schools and districts can start by simply gathering diverse groups of students and asking them questions. “Anytime students have autonomy and shared ownership of their environment, they’re more engaged,” Hammond says. “They realize they can be a part of the solution, and it’s not something being done to them, it’s something being done with them.”


Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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