Four Kinds of Student Voice

Student Voice is all the rage in some schools today. Teachers are listening to Student Voice in classrooms, school improvement programs are infusing Student Voice in reform efforts, and education leaders are rallying Student Voice to support their efforts as never before. Even community based organizations are concerned with Student Voice, working with young people to make their opinions, ideas, knowledge, and actions heard by adults who are indifferent.

However, not all Student Voice is the same. Research has been adamant about identifying where and how students differ in their attitudes, opinions, expressions, and experiences in schools. Since that’s the case, how can Student Voice be the same?

Student Voice is any expression by any young person relating to any part of learning or schools, for any purpose. Many well-meaning adults who advocate for Student Voice are often inadvertently talking about what is convenient for us as adults.

Convenient Student Voice happens whenever adults know who is going to speak, what is going to be said, where its going to be shared, when its going to happen, and what the outcomes are going to be. Adults might not have written the script, but what’s going to be said is no surprise to them. This can include students sharing their opinions on a topic in class, speaking to the school board , the principal’s student advisory council, and the student researcher program. It can also include the traditional student leaders writing letters of protest to the school newspaper, the student actors holding a protest for better theater equipment, or the service learning program at school.

Inconvenient Student Voice is when students express themselves in ways that aren’t predictable. They share ideas, shout out thoughts, take action, reflect harshly, or critique severely. They write, draw, graffitti, paint, play, sing, protest, research, build, deconstruct, rebuild, examine, and do things that adults don’t know, understand, approve of, or otherwise predict. Inconvenient student voice can be graffitting on lockers, texting test answers back and forth, bullying, or protesting teacher firings.

Traditional Student Leaders are students who are generally going to be successful in any school anywhere. They are well-adjusted for traditional learning environments, with learning styles and dispositions towards adults that make them amenable towards the structure, style, form, and function of schools today.

Nontraditional Student Leaders are students who may or may not make it through school. They don’t necessarily adhere to adults’ expectations for their behavior or attitudes, and they don’t set the examples that adults want them to. Instead, they may incite their peers into laughter, form gangs, or otherwise be contentious, appearing disregarding towards adults.

The difference between these kinds to Student Voice depends on location, position, and circumstance. A student’s race, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, educational attainment, or other identities frequently determines whether or not Student Voice is heard, engaged, interacted with, approved of, or denied, ignored, or penalized.

My work with SoundOut has taught me that there is much more Student Voice happening than adults ever approve of, and that inconvenient Student Voice is all over. Its a matter of whether adults actually want to hear it.

What do you think? Where does Student Voice have a role in your school, convenient or inconvenient, traditional or nontraditional?

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!
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