Student Voice…A Powerful Tool, Misunderstood Toxic Element or Both?

If you have read the title of this post and said to yourself, this guy is crazy. Please do not pass judgement on me until you read the entire piece. Like everything else I welcome all opinions and feedback.

I am an intermediate teacher who believes that student voice is a critical aspect of my learning, teaching, professional reflection and key to a successful classroom. When however it is implemented poorly or completely misunderstood by those who are forced to implement it without a plan , it can quickly become a poison which can cause conflict and dissension in any school setting.

The term ‘student voice’ has become the catchphrase at many school boards in Ontario and a pillar of many board improvement plans over the past few years. It is a term that is overused in education today and rarely honoured by those who espouse it most. It has become the catchphrase of many educators and administrative upcommers and wannabes who hope to make a lasting impression at meetings, interviews, camp fires etc.

The Capacity Building Series (published by the Student Achievement Division of the LNS) refers to student voice as a metaphor for student engagement. It is a means of bringing students into the role of co-learners with both teachers and parents in a positive collaborative framework.

student voice visual                                                                   student voice visual 2

While nearly all educators agree (in theory) this could be a powerful tool to encourage students become more engaged in the learning process, it has often been implemented with blinding speed by upper management with far too many negative unintended consequences.

Principals have been bullied into demonstrating how they are using student voice to improve learning in their schools. However it has been implemented in a forced homogenised manner which often leaves teachers feeling abandoned by their principals and at the mercy of their students.

First and foremost, challenges experienced in the education system over the past few years has placed a significant strain on parent-student and parent-teacher relationships. Traditional high level of respect for teachers has been replaced by anger, frustration and disrespect. These feelings are most often experienced by parents and communities who then pass this anger or distrust on to their kids. This has directly resulted in students having far less respect for teachers, schools and an ambivalence toward school work in general.  This negative cycle becomes perpetuated by students received negative message from parents about schools and their teachers and thus becoming increasing disrespectful toward teachers.

All of this has resulted in an abnormally high level of student entitlement (with little accountability being placed back onto the students).

In many places this misrepresentation of the spirit of student voice has resulted in student feeling empowered to actively pressure education professionals to do what they want without a sense of the responsibility that comes along with it. Additionally parents are being fed this false belief that they can use their negative voices (in the guise of student voice) to push personal agendas and force changes upon schools. The difficultly with this is that principals and teachers (who work on the front line) are caught in the middle of this. It has additionally become a new weapon to be used by parents, students and administration to push personal agendas in an attempt to stifle the teacher voice.

My reflection here is that student voice is a critical piece of the education model if and when it is introduced and monitored carefully. Unfortunately that is not likely to be the case.  Current evidence suggests it will be yet another new board initiative that will be poorly incorporated and quickly swept under the rug as a new catch phrase comes from a fire side chat to blow us in yet another direction.

Oh, what could be!

Student Voice is (1280x495)

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A Second Chance…Time to Remove My Shackles

How many of you have finished a school year wishing you could have the year over again? Our job is so unlike most others. How many carpenters wish they could rebuild a house? Well, if one of them built your home, you may want to get out of there as fast as possible!

For us, there is no one strategy, no one big idea, no one framework that will ensure success. If you follow current building codes and construction plans your structure will nearly always be sound and successful. It is one exciting and ubiquitously frustrating reality of being a teacher. No one plan works all of the time.

This year (my 9th as a teacher) was both a success and failure in many ways. So much so that is has left me seriously questioning the structure, goals, organization, and future of our school system and my practice in particular. Every summer I take time to reflect on my craft and choose an area or two in which to learn more about to improve my practice. This year however I am finding that one or two areas is not enough.

I am fundamentally frustrated by the rigid nature of our bureaucratic school system and the narrow minded view of what we do as educators. I continue to follow dynamic, independent educators on Twitter and yearn to push my classroom further from the norm. The old school view is no longer good enough.

Using technology, personal learning opportunities and talking with my students, I should be able to make the educational experience much more relevant for my students and useful to their future selves.

The more I reflect, the more I realize I have allowed others in our system to limit my actions. No longer will I be talked into submission by the naysayers and fear-mongers. By limiting my own actions and suppressing my own ideas and beliefs I have shackled myself to the conformists views of the education system. This ends now!

I feel more liberated than ever before. I can’t wait for September. I am about to become the Frank Sinatra of teachers…hell I am going to do it MY WAY!

I alone have the key! Next year I will get a second chance with my class from this past year. Everyone deserves a second chance…I will not waste mine.

Is a 21st Century Education Possible in a 19th Century System

Our current education system is entering a time of great promise and change. We are presently on the precipice of the next great leap in educational reorganization and learning…or the continuance of what is quickly becoming a tired antiquated system. All social media forms (which currently house some of our best thinkers) are filled with passionate, dedicated people sharing their beliefs, successes, reflections and visions for a better academic tomorrow. We (as I would like to be counted among them) are experiencing small to moderate successes and sharing those stories with all of our education brethren.

As many of us work passionately to use the system to find new resources to take risks implementing modern strategies, technologies, theories and pedagogical ideals which go against the dominant (popular) thinking, I am left wondering if we can truly be successful as educators in developing 21st Century Learners from the civil war which currently exists in public education.

On a daily basis I express to my students the joy of making mistakes and learning from them. We have collaborated with students from other schools using Google Docs to improve our ability to work together from a distance and create individual passion for learning and sharing information.  To engage in this type of learning, to develop a relationship with someone you have only ever seen over Adobe Connect meetings takes courage,  personal drive and a whole host of academic ans social skills. But most of all it takes time…the one precious resource we are seriously lacking.

I am not proposing that we lengthen the school day or year in an effort to create artificial time. Rather, we as professional educators need be given more freedom to spend extra time on those learning opportunities that will provide the most benefit to our students, the type of learning  they will carrying with them outside of the classroom and into their future lives.

One way to assist teachers in making learning more meaningful for students is to change the current rules regarding report cards. While the vast majority of educators agree that report cards themselves are a poor way to educate parents about their child’s academic and social progress (read more about feedback by @tbed63  and listen to  @BAMRadioNetwork ), many boards and ministries of education have yet to accept this. The expectations placed on teachers to report on so many areas of the curriculum (with a letter or numerical grades) each term often results in teacher scrambling to ‘teach’ enough material to fill a prescribed number of academic boxes.

These two ideals run counter to one another, I will attempt to clarify here. Teachers often and up ‘speed teaching’ parts of a bulging curriculum in an effort to satisfy a numerical requirement for educational hierarchies. Authentic learning tasks, using technology to expand the classroom, in an effort to allow students to develop 21st Century Skills, takes time. In fact it may significantly run over the 2 week time period you had allotted for Skypeing with Chris Hadfield, reading and responding to blogs and posts written by NASA and assisting your students to choose an aspect of space or space exploration they are passionate about and complete an inquiry project with the ultimate goal of sharing what they have learned with their peers.

It is asinine to think that students and educators are best served by the outdated 19th Century educational system whereby a certain number of ‘boxes’ needed to be filled by the end of term 1, term 2 and term 3. Educators need to be free to assess the needs of their own class and program/plan accordingly. To be forced to report on a specific number of subject (each with numerous strands) each term is far to rigid for creative teaching and passionate learning.

It is time to command a change! As professionals we should not be forced to cover a prescribed set of material each term which in no way takes the needs and passions of different learners and teachers from individual schools into account. This often leads to rushing through material for the express purpose of filling a box on an outdated tool (report cards).

If we are going to teach material, lets do it for the right reasons. Do it because it has some value to the students. Do it in a time frame that respects the material, the learner and the educator.  Do it for your student who works with you every day. In the end…he/she is the one who matters most.