CES ChangeLab “Ask A Mentor” Panel – Student Leadership: How to Foster Powerful Student Voice

Student Leadership: How to Foster Powerful Student Voice

We all know that areas of student engagement, achievement and school culture improve when students are given a voice. Oppressing, controlling and silencing students should be a thing of the past. Giving students voice in the classroom, a say regarding school policies and a role in reform initiatives make schools more democratic, less autocratic and certainly more learner centered. But what does meaningful student voice look like? This panel is moderated by Eagle Rock School Head Robert Burkhardt, Director of Students Philbert Smith, Acting Director of Professional Development Dan Condon, and student Coral Ann S.

Q:  I have been trying to engage the students in the process of developing “voice,” however, there seems to be a lack of buy in by the students. How can I convince them that the school wants them to be part of the policy making process, that their voice will not simply be “window dressing?”

A:  As a student at Eagle Rock I remember the first time i spoke was in a sittuation where i was comfortable. I knew the topic, I knew what to address and I felt comfortable in my answer. I think the fear of speaking from your mind holds many students back. Give them a heads start. Putting out other ideas by other students and opening a discussion up. Then they won’t feel as though the words they speak will be taken drastically, it will just become a typical conversation. A lot of times when they are voicing opinions, the opinions don’t go anywhere. Make a valid statement that what is said is really going to affect the school. Make sure they know this is their chance to have a say in the system. Answered 04/11/06 by Coral S.

A:  I think it’s important to actually use student voice if they are asked for it. I think it’s a switch for many students to actually believe that their voice and leadership will be used at a deeper level than planning the Junior Prom. It’s important for the students to see the fruits of their input. Not that they will always get their way, though. It’s a process. Incorporated in the stated values of Eagle Rock School (8 + 5 = 10), democratic governance and leadership for justice permeate the daily lives of students and staff. One way students and staff understand what it means to practice democracy and leadership is through the philosophy of “you have no right to no opinion.” This is an idea that students are introduced to during their orientation to Eagle Rock. Incorporated into having an opinion is the expectation that individuals will take decisive action based on their beliefs. Leadership and student government can be divided into two categories, formal (structured) and informal (loosely structured, if at all). Answered 04/11/06 by Dan Condon

A:  There isn’t a true “magic bullet” for this one. Student Voice in a school has to be nutured and encouraged. Most students feel that there voice is “window dressing” because that has been there experience. It can begin in school with an issue that the students are passionate about and want resolution. With guidance that can take it on and go through the process of finding a resolution. Solicit students to sit in on small committees. Select a few students to have lunch with regularly. Once students begin to feel that there voice is being heard the will begin to respond more favorably. Make sure all the adults are on the same page that student voice is valued at your school. Students will belives our actions more than our words when it comes to legitimizing their voice. Answered 04/14/06 by Philbert Smith Q:  Encouraging a school to be more ‘democratic rather less autocratic’ is clearly a worthwhile aim. A classic example, of this approach taken to extreme, is Summerhill-the English independent school, founded in 1921, where students have almost total say over what happens (http://www.summerhillschool.co.uk/) The key lies certainly with engendering the feeling that ‘voices’ are listened to and given attention. Infrastructures can be set up which allow student participation at consultation meetings. For example, there may be student representatives on school policy panels or whatever. In practice,however, it may prove difficult to obtain real engagement, beyond the superficial,and ensure meaningful participation rather than a kind of mechanical token involvement. More reticent students can find it difficult to contribute to such meetings. What tactics might be used to overcome this? Is one answer to make use of an electronic forum for students, like this one, which might encourage participation by those less likely to have much to say in a face to face event? It might also moderate those who sometimes overdominate debates. How would such a forum be managed to avoid its deterioration into trvivia? Or are there better approaches that might be used? Best wishes John Ralston A:  First of all… Thanks for the question. We have learned some things over the past 13 years and don’t think we know it all. We continue to learn everyday. That said… Leadership and student government can be divided into two categories at Eagle Rock School, formal (structured) and informal (loosely structured, if at all). Following is a description of a mere few of the more formal avenues of student government and leadership: +Peer Council: This body of government is elected by students to serve their interests and give them a greater voice in the community. The purposes of Peer Council are twofold: To advocate for student concerns and to act as a disciplinarian for the student body. The Council does not meet regularly but as issues arise. The members of this group are considered trustworthy, wise, and fair. Peer Council has been involved in proactive procedures such as organizing a study hall for students who struggle to get their work in on time. Peer Council has also been the force behind some student activities, such as twin day and pajama day. +House Representatives and Other Leaders: Each house on campus has one representative who attends biweekly staff meetings. As a group, these representatives provide students voice when issues are being dealt with, and they are responsible for relaying important information to their housemates. Student representatives are considered full members at the meetings and have the floor to speak as they wish. Several other aspects of Eagle Rock life need student leaders in order to function properly. Kitchen Patrol (KP) has team leaders; intramural sports have student team captains as well as students who serve as referees; and each house has men’s and women’s wing leaders. +Magnificent Seven: This group consists of the seven most veteran students at Eagle Rock. Each is responsible for being on duty one night per week. During their shift they receive a staff key and share equal responsibility with other staff on duty (except for driving). While on duty, students monitor the campus, supervise campus clean-up, perform bed checks to make sure everyone is accounted for, and support the duty staff members as necessary. +Committees: Students usually participate in some way on formal committees. The work of these committees may include, but is not limited to, hiring new staff, restructuring the Presentations of Learning (POL) process, designing curriculum, considering students for second chance at Eagle Rock, buying food for special events at the school, etc. +Nationwide Workshops: Almost every time an Eagle Rock staff member presents at a conference students co-present. Sometimes students are the key presenters, accompanied by staff. For example, a group of students recently keynoted a conference about alternatives to expulsion. Students have traveled from Washington State to the Florida Keys and many places in between to share what Eagle Rock is doing and how student voice is valued. +The Takeover: On a typical school day, a group of students organized the entire student body around a “takeover” of the school. They decided to share with the staff some of what they experience as students and how they feel about their experiences. They turned the day into what a day in their lives might have been. While their plan wasn’t thought out as well as it could have been, this day had considerable impact on staff and students. As a result, staff adjusted schedules and proceeded the next day with a greater sense of what it means to be a student. This is an example of what can happen when students let their imaginations work for them and take decisive action about something they believe in. +Gatherings: Gathering is a time when Eagle Rock meets as a whole community to share important ideas and information. Other than for Wednesday (which has a different agenda), students and staff can sign up for Gathering on any weekday. Many students take advantage of a Gathering to share important concepts or situations with the entire community. Student-run Gatherings have focused on recycling, AIDS education, fund-raising, anger management, giving and receiving feedback, providing service to others and many other topics. Answered 04/11/06 by Dan Condon

Q: What do you see as the relationship between voice in the classroom and in policy, and developing ‘voice’ in writing?

A:  I think that they are very closely connected and we encourage that voice in student writing as much as we do in other areas of our learning community. The reading and writing program at Eagle Rock helps students unleash their imaginations, build their knowledge base, and actualize their own humanity. Students read to connect their lives with others’ experiences and to appreciate the writing styles of various writers. Staff members push students to become more widely read and also provide help to strengthen reading skills. Writing serves as Eagle Rock’s primary mode of academic expression and demonstration of understanding. Students are challenged to write fiction, poetry, essays, letters, and proposals across the curriculum. Writing is also important in assessment; in many disciplines, students document their knowledge by constructing portfolios and writing essays and reports. Prior to Presentations of Learning (POLs), students prepare a POL packet to send to their panel members. This packet includes a cover letter, an autobiography, a moral and ethical code and other types of writing. The language arts staff operates a writing center that helps students with academic writing in many forms. One strength is that the language arts program respects the need for differentiated instruction and individualized learning plans. Much of the instruction that students receive in writing is on a one-to-one, coaching basis. Writing occurs across the curriculum. In most classes, writing is thought of as process, not just product. Also, instructors focus on writing for actual rather than imagined audiences: writing is for real purposes. For example, in research projects students are challenged to propose political solutions, address environmental issues, and raise awareness within and beyond Eagle Rock School. The process of research and writing a research paper is rooted in making a contribution. Answered 04/11/06 by Dan Condon

A:  I think that through wirting the students get the time to put in enough thought process to write a true opinion. Though voicing opinions at Eagle Rock does a lot of good as well. Having Students speak their own words in large crowds gives them a self-confidence needed in many real world enviornments. Answered 04/11/06 by Coral S.

Q:  Expressing thoughts in writing generally(but not always)encourages some refection about what has been said. Also a student may find it difficult to, for example, be critical about an aspect of policy in a traditional group meeting. John

A:  John—initially, it may be true that the reflection is on what has been said. Developing critical thought is like building muscle, it has to be exercise. Through regular on going conversations, pushing students to go below the surface, students begin to go beyond what has been said before. It is wonderful to watch this transformation. As they do it orally, it well begin to reflect in their writing. As students become comfortable with “their voice” they have no problem reflecting on policy issues. With policy issues guidance is needed to help students understand the merits of reaching a concensus and to understand that having a voice does not mean that you will always get your way. Student voice works best when adults value student voice. Answered 04/15/06 by Philbert Smith

A:  My take is that this is a matter of intentional practice. If students get used to “Having No Right To No Opinion” it eventually becomes a practice that is embraced. The transformation is quite amazing. I think that many students have been oppressed for so long that they have given up… it’s not that they don’t have something to say… they just don’t think anything will be done with it. Answered 04/11/06 by Dan Condon

Q:  Is authentic “student voice” really possible in large comperhensive schools? We find working with small teams of students to be very powerful but almost impossible to spread the bounty school-wide or district-wide. When it becomes to the whole school and beyond it is sort of like an undemocratic “corporation” whre “roles” are assigned, expectations raised, but there is very little authenic stundet voice that is not ruled by inflexible rules established for the sake of safety and routine. Is authentic stundet voice really possible in large and poor public schools?

A:  Creating a culture of community in the learning environment is key and is something that we work with large comprehensive public schools on. You can’t force students to have student voice but you can create an environment where it’s most likely to happen. Answered 04/12/06 by Dan Condon

A:  I think this is a leadership and culture question. From my viewpoint it is possible to so arrange a school that voices are used and heard. It takes time and patience, but if the school leaders want to “hear,” they will. And they will set up systems to ensure regular discussion or feedback. By paying attention to the culture the school is building it becomes possible to evoke the voices one wants to hear. No, it is not easy. But it is important. Answered 04/12/06 by Robert Burkhardt

Q:  First, thank you all for your participation in this panel. As a teacher, at the classroom level, I have been a believer in nurturing and encouraging student self determination and input into the pedagogy and curriculum directions we take as a class (within the framework of best practices, school policy and state standards). Examples are a “de-briefing” after an assessment, planning a strategy to improve achievement on an upcoming unit of instruction, deciding whether to move more deeply into a topic or move on to another and developing plans for projects that interest the student while remaining within the scope of the course. Generally this works well and I’m looking forward next year to working in an even more student centered environment. I have little experience with “real” student voice at the school level however but some of my classroom experience with this issue raises this question. How does Eagle Rock strike a balance between genuine student input and the random, non-relevant type of input? One doesn’t want to stifle a student’s opinion, on the other hand one presumably wants the dialogue to move forward in a meaningful direction. Do you simply take a more patient approach, allowing time for the odd tangential discussion? Or do you use methods or guidelines to keep the dialogue on track? I’m interested in any specific practices at the school, house or classroom level you would like to share. Wyatt Bingham

A:  Wyatt — Thank you for your fine question. Yes, we are patient with errant student voices, but we are not fools. There are periodic arabesques in student discussion that may seem to go nowhere. There are other times when observations are germane and trenchant. You have a role to play in setting guidelines and expectations. One of the advantages we have at Eagle Rock is that there are a variety of forums for discussion (community meeting, Gathering, advisory, class, gender meetings, ad hoc committees, etc.). This give students and staff AMPLE opportunity to hear and be heard. It also offers many opportunities to steer a conversation or discussion back to relevancy. It has taken a number of years, but our students, especially veteran students, are adept at concise framing of argument or plea. And they are careful with each other (small communites help this occur) to not dismiss out-of-hand a stray remark, knowing that poor treatment of another will return to haunt them soon.Constant practice and modelling will yield favorable results. Answered 04/12/06 by Robert Burkhardt

Q:  I believe the root problem at my elemtnary school is that the teachers don’t know how to communicate effectively in a democratic environment at school. How can I help my colleagues to find productive ways of communicating with the administration? The teachers at my elementary school (LAUSD LD 3) appear to be habituated to the “we versus them” mentality to the extent that the teachers automatically fight any ideas they hear from someone who they believe is in “authority”. How can I help change this? I’ve already tried for 5 years to show the teachers that there is no “us and them”, but I’ve seen absolutely no change in behavior.

A:  Perhaps there really is an “us and them,’ and therein may lie the seemingly intractable problem. Do the administrators want to communicate with your colleagues? Or do they want to speak at them? If your colleagues have been effectively dismissed or marginalized for some time it will take hard work and patience to rebuild relationships. My suggestion: start slow and small and manageable. Pick something for next autumn that has a high probability of success involving only a few people. Make it work. Trumpet the success slowly (nothing succeeds like success). Build relationships and communication through real events over time. And remember that there will be some who do not want it to succeed. Be like water: seek your own level and work with like minds. Have fun. Others will acknowledge success and results over time, however grudgingly. Then you can potentially reel them in, slowly. Answered 04/12/06 by Robert Burkhardt

Q:  Are you familiar with the work of Dr. illiam Glasser, M.D.? Glasser is a psychiatrist and lives in LA. He has written many books, but relative to the this topic, Choice Theory and Every Student Can Succeed. His premise is that everything evolves around our relationships. If we want to foster powerful student voices we must create a better relationship between administrators, teachers and students. What do you think?

A:  I really believe that this is a strength we have the luxury of having at Eagle Rock as we’re residential and year round. Not to say it’s not possible elsewhere. Through my Houseparenting experience those relationships were powerful. I play a variety of roles for students from big brother to surrogate parent. We are intentional in having as many different teams and groups (intramurals, advisory, house, etc.) as possible in order to building these relationships. Answered 04/13/06 by Dan Condon

A:  I’ve been using Glasser’s ideas since the beginning of Eagle Rock. He’s a very smart guy, and his words seem written for this school. I have long been convinced that the various relationships among students, teachers and administrators are foundational to fostering and nurturing student voice. We use the word “community” as the primary lens for developing relationships during the first five years of Eagle Rock. It turns out to have been a wise choice. Answered 04/13/06 by Robert Burkhardt

A:  It’s really true! Being able to address staff members by their first names and knowing a little about their personal life really connects the student and staff. We are so lucky at Eagle Rock because we get to share almost three meals a day with staff. At the table we get to find a connection in lives. It helps our community and the smaller communities within our community. Examples like classes, advisory, and houses. We all become closer through spending leisure time together. Answered 04/13/06 by Coral S.

Q:  Hi, there. Do you think that student voice has any effect on learning? If so, what effects do you think it has (positive and negative)?

A:  Absolutely, it has an effect on learning. I do not see a downside with student voice in the classroom. Sometimes it may be awkward and uncomfortable, most of the time it stimulates learning. Students learn and retain more when they feel like an active participant and take responsibility for their learning. I would like to caution that student voice not be looked upon as a program to be implemented. My view is that it is an attitude to be encourage and nutured. This is done through building authentic relationships base upon trust and intimacy then systemic changes can occur within the classroom and school as a whole. Answered 04/15/06 by Philbert Smith

A:  What a wonderful question! And the answer is an emphatic YES. Think about your own learning for a moment. When you are in charge of where you go, what you do, what you think, what you say, what you read and write and see, there is more likely a higher return on learning than if I were to tell you to read this or go there. As students use their voices and become more familiar with directing their own lives, they are both more accountable for choices and any resultant learning. They are more conscious of choreographing their own lives. It ios not in passivity that we learn–it is in action that gives us opportunities to think, reflect and grow. Student voice is one important tool in this process, as the speaker can not disengage from his/her responsibility for having spoken the words. It has been our experience at Eagle Rock that students grow their own voices as they move from newcomers to potential graduates, and theis learning seems to follow a similar pattern. Answered 04/14/06 by Robert Burkhardt

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