The Power of Student Voices

I am so excited and honored to be able to take on the responsibility of working with an amazing group of high school students who are designing and delivering professional development in our school district. Yes, you read that right- students delivering professional development. Those of you who know me, know I believe that the student voice is one of the missing pieces in all of these discussions about educational reform. How awesome that I started working for the Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate program last year as they were taking on a new project called “The Student Six”.

In the Spring of 2011, Graig Meyer (my boss!) and Bonnie Davis (educational consultant) began working with BRMA students to teach them research-based strategies for culturally proficient instruction. The BRMA students identified a set of six strategies they believe to be most helpful to students of color.  It was really exciting in the  fall of 2011 to have the School Improvement Network film the students and teachers, whom the students identified as exemplars of these practices, for a one-hour video professional development tool. You can access those videos if you are subscribed to PD360. Graig and I have worked with student facilitators to develop  a student-driven professional development model in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools using the six strategies:

Definition of Strategies:

1. Visibility: Making every student feel acknowledged and included in the classroom.

2. Proximity: Using physical space to engage students and reduce perceived threat.

3. Connecting to student’s lives: Making linkages between classroom content and student experiences and perspectives.

4. Engaging students’ culture: Incorporating positive elements of students’ culture into classroom learning and community building.

5. Addressing race: Talking openly about racial dynamics and how they impact the student experience.

6. Connecting to the larger world: Helping students identify their future paths and using classroom experiences to guide students towards their personal goals.

Our first session was three weeks ago. Wow! We had 31 educators and 4 student facilitators. Words just can’t describe how powerful it was. It’s a big step to involve students in, essentially, teaching teachers. The educators (teachers, administrators, support staff) who attended weren’t even fazed. Like the true professionals they are, they dove in and weren’t afraid to ask their facilitators questions. The talk around the tables was rich and challenging. Several of the students facilitators came up to me afterwards to share their excitement. One student said “Mrs. Bunner, there was a teacher and she wasn’t sure how to use one of the strategies in her classroom, so we brainstormed and I was able to help her find a solution!” Another student shared “I told the group about a time a teacher asked me a question which I didn’t realize was rhetorical. In my culture, when an adult asks you a question, you answer. So I did. And the teacher thought I was trying to be a smart-aleck. So I went to the teacher and explained my view and apologized. A teacher in my group shared that she had a student do the same thing and she thought they were trying to be smart. She hadn’t even thought about that being a cultural difference.”  The student facilitators chose their “top-student” from their table group to win a prize at the end. I loved the looks on the educators’ faces when their facilitator announced their name. And the compliments the students shared about their nominee were so thoughtful.

Since then, we’ve had several more folks sign up for the last 3 sessions. And the biggest feedback for improvement the student facilitators gave me was that the table groups needed to be smaller. So, we’ve recruited more student facilitators! Today we met over breakfast with 10 students and planned next week’s agenda. The students had such great ideas about how we should structure the session, what activities we should use and what reflection questions we should ask. I’m so excited for February 21 to arrive! I wish all of you could be there!

There is such power to hear directly from students how what we do as teachers affects them. My goal is that we can emulate the National Urban Alliance’s Student Voices program where students completely run the PD time for teachers. I’d be thrilled to work myself out of a job! 🙂 For now, I am enjoying this journey and this opportunity to watch young people share their voices. I’ll keep you posted!

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