For the last year SoundOut has been working with students, teachers and administrators in several Seattle-area high schools and at the district office to examine student perspectives on equity in schools. Its been an interesting project, with a varying amount of resistance and excitement from students, along with a range of roadblocks and embracing from adults.
Going into the project, I was interested in the question of what makes youth voice equitable among young people. In many schools it seems that student governments, leadership classes, all of the supposedly constructive, traditional avenues for student voice in schools belong to students who are privileged enough to have access to them. That access is granted through academic achievement, which in turn correlates to the academic achievement gap. So we have a “student involvement gap” in schools.
What is discouraging about this most, to me, is that educators often talk about student involvement opportunities in terms of privilege: “Its a privilege to be in this class,” or “Your peers chose you to be a leader.” Neither of these is a particularly useful perspective for engaging non-academically engaged learners. But research says student voice opportunities can engage these learners!
So how can we create more opportunities for more students to experience more student voice opportunities everyday? Coupled with that challenge is the question of meaningfulness: While experience proves that a certain percentage of the student body is sufficed to participate in tokenistic, infantalizing and potentially harmful activities that parade themselves as student voice opportunities, we know that only a small percentage of all students are fooled by this kind of gesturing. What are the new avenues, the new ways that we need to engage students?
The Seattle Student Equity Project has shown me that those avenues are closer to hand than we realize. The “best” teachers – the ones students like the most who seem to be highly effective at engaging the historically disengaged learners – already use these methods daily. Let’s pull them out and learn from them. We need more youth voice from more youth.