Locating Student Voice

A lot of people are misunderstanding student voice and student engagement these days. Well-meaning educators and politicians are attributing all kinds of peculiarities and particularities to these terms, melding them with notions about student leadership, student achievement, and school communities as a whole. From more than a decade experience promoting these concepts throughout K-12 schools I have come to understand how important it is to be clear about the vernacular we use.

Student engagement is the sustained connection a learner has to the topic, teacher, students, school, or educative process they’re engaged in. This connection can be psychological, social, emotional, physical, or otherwise, so long as it’s sustained, which is to say that it’s “continued or be prolonged for an extended period or without interruption.”

That allows us to understand that student voice is any expression of any learner about education, learning, schools, and all things related. With this understanding its easier to see how student voice should be integrated throughout the educational system through my Frameworks of Meaningful Student Involvement. To differentiate between the various terms thrown around, I define Meaningful Student Involvement as “the process of engaging students as partners in every facet of school change for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to education, community, and democracy.”

All of these definitions lend themselves easily to a formula: Student Voice can lead to Student Engagement through Meaningful Student Involvement. However, minus the capacity to contribute to whole school improvement efforts, teachers and students may feel stymied in their attempts to promote Meaningful Student Involvement. There are practical, pragmatic ways every learner can be engaged through Meaningful Student Involvement, and that’s why it’s important to locate student voice throughout schools.

One of the things these Frameworks illuminates is a typology of Meaningful Student Involvement. In this post I want to discuss different locations of student voice throughout schools. Where Meaningful Student Involvement shows how student voice can be engaged through education research, planning, teaching, evaluation, decision-making, and advocacy, this model shows where student voice can be located throughout schools.

The very first location of student voice in schools is classroom curriculum. Curriculum, which is the stable of all of learners’ experience in schools, is an increasingly standardized location where student voice can be strategically situated in order to engage students. This allows teachers to position students’ attitudes, experiences, beliefs, ideas, actions, and outcomes as central to learning. By identifying the central role of classroom curriculum in student voice, schools can re-position student leadership by moving it from the purview of “eloquent” or “gifted” students towards the experience of the proverbial “every student”. This can allow learners to invest in learning, deepen their experience of curriculum, and secure the power of learning throughout their lives.

The second location for student voice in schools is classroom management. Simple activities designed to prevent, intervene, or respond to challenging student behavior can give appropriate and necessary credence to student voice. Doing this can position learners as essential contributors to substantive activities within the normal learning environment of the classroom. In turn, this allows them to understand themselves as essential actors, which allows their transition from passive recipients of adult-led education towards student/adult partnerships promoting learning, teaching, and leadership for all.

Building climate is made of the “characteristics of schools, including the physical structure of a school building and the interactions between students and teachers.” Engaging student voice in building climate doesn’t mean handing over the keys to the car to the kids for them to learn to drive; it means acknowledging they’re already driving building climate, whether you admit it or not. Meaningful Student Involvement calls for educators to move from passively allowing students to drive school culture to actively encouraging it. While doing that, schools can use the Characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement to substantially enhance that student voice.

While it seems obvious that the expressions of learners drive extra-curricular activities, it is not always true that is the case. In the case of most clubs, teams, and other activities, its important to position the Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement directly on top of the activity to ensure fidelity. This allows us to ask many essential questions, including when, where, how, and who is engaged in the activities.

In community schools student voice can serve as a perfect avenue for substantiating community connections throughout the education system. Place-based learning requires this substantiation, and the best service learning programs do the same. Serving as more than mere puppets of well-meaning school administrators and teachers, students can be true liaisons between the school and the community, allowing the school to capitalize from all of any communities’ inherent assets, apparent or hidden.

All these locations of student voice do not matter if they’re not acknowledged or drawn upon. They don’t allow for apathy or disregard by educators, either. They do challenge teachers and administrators to get honest about their desire to teach, lead, and learn with students. From that place all things can change, always, throughout every one of our schools for every student. That is Meaningful Student Involvement.

CommonAction staff are available to train on student voice, student engagement, Meaningful Student Involvement, and much more. To talk about the possibilities give a call to Adam at (360) 489-9680.

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