A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Nancy Doda and Mark Springer at a Middle-Level professional conference. Their passion for education, especially the education of middle schoolers, was inspiring. Attending sessions with them led to a lot of the work we do as a seventh-grade team, but it also has influenced how I teach.
As a teacher, I am always striving to improve my craft. In addition, as I become more comfortable with transitioning from a more traditional pedagogy to leaving the stage, I have looked for ways to incorporate more student voice in my classroom. In an ideal world, I would love for students to drive the curriculum more than I do, but one of the common constraints many teachers feel is a lack of time and a more-or-less mandated curriculum. I am fortunate that I do not have to worry about state mandated testing, but unless we move away from a structured grading system, I will never be able to fully relinquish my mandated curriculum.
A personal goal that I have for myself is to generate lessons where students are able to construct meaning on their own within the confines of my structured curriculum. Each year, I get better at doing this, but the students are different every year. What works for one group of students does not work for others. That is still a work in progress. However, I have been finding other ways to incorporate student voice in my classroom:
- Transparency: This seems silly to mention here, but when I refer to transparency, I am referring to my own transparency. If I have a goal for a lesson, I tell my students. If I am trying something new (taking a risk), I tell my students. If my students are doing something out of the ordinary, I tell the students and the parents. I feel that by being open about what I am doing, the students will feel more comfortable reciprocating. Part of this lends itself to being approachable, but it also shows students that there is nothing wrong with trying and failing. And, yes, I do tell my students when I try something new, AND it is a miserable failure. This is a part of modeling for our students that should be a given. Transparency should be at the heart of most of the things we do as educators.
- Opportunity: There are students who are going to be quiet in class. We need to honor that and respect it. Their reasons are too varied to get into, but in a typical class setting, I don’t feel that it is always appropriate to call on students blindly to answer questions from me. I would rather use the traditional wait-time to allow for student response. Are there some students who won’t respond in those situations? Yes. Absolutely. Therefore, it is up to me to find another avenue to provide them with an opportunity to have a voice. With so many digital tools at our disposal, there isn’t any reason to not use them. Formative assessment tools like Socrative and Poll Everywhere are a great start. Other collaborative tools like Padlet, TodaysMeet or creating shared documents on Google Drive are also opportunities to increase student voice (I highly recommend the Google add-on Doctopus for distributing documents in Google Classroom).
- Elicit feedback: The one thing I have learned is that feedback is only feedback. It is a neutral thing. We attach value to it based on our personal attachments to ideas. Many teachers I know do not want feedback from their students because they consistently worry that students will express a dislike for them. The point of feedback is to find opportunities for improvement as well as getting students to be engaged in the process of their own learning. Therefore, it is a necessary tool for both the student and the teacher. In this way, they can make deeper connections with what they are learning because they must think about the subjects in a different way. It also allows the teacher to know what is going on in the learner’s head. Both sides become learners. I ask my students for feedback on my teaching and their performance through Google Forms at least once a marking period. I will also use short quick forms to assess a particular lesson when I try something new. Instant feedback is always best. This is both an opportunity for those quiet students to speak up, but it is also a great method for feedback. For samples of what questions you might like to ask students, visit stuvoices.org to see how simple or how elaborate student feedback can get.