Situational Student Voice

Recently, Zak Malamed of a new organization called Student Voice hosted me in a conversation on the topic of student voice. In a dynamic, exhilarating dialogue with what seemed like dozens, I responded to questions about student voice, student engagement, meaningful student involvement, and much more. It was kinda awesome.

In the course of conversation I was confronted with questions about how adults in schools can actually listen to student voice, rather than manipulate and narrow it through the strainers of adults’ lenses. I responded, in 140 characters or less, by proposing a new approach that I’m calling Situational Student Voice. Situational Student Voice allows for the uniquely different positions, authorities, conditions, and stimuli facing students in any given circumstance and acknowledges their unfettered responses to be “student voice”. 
This fulfills my definition of student voice, which I define as any expression of any student anywhere about anything relating to the educational experience. That means that student voice is:
  • Tapping on desks
  • Answering questions in class
  • Texting answers to tests
  • Sharing classwork with peers
  • Fighting behind school
  • Participating in class discussions
  • Sharing answers to tests without permission
  • Decorating hallway lockers
  • Graffiti in the bathroom
  • Sharing personal life experience through assignments
  • Arguing with teachers
  • Developing a student-led club website
  • Creating satirical websites about schools
  • Speaking at school board meetings
  • Protesting a teacher getting fired
Student voice is any expression of any student anywhere about anything relating to the educational experience. 
Developing the skills students have in order to promote them sharing their voices in ways adults approve of automatically moves student voice towards something else. While this might appeal to some students, it doesn’t appeal to most of them. There is are options in our work to reposition students from being the passive recipients of schools towards becoming active partners throughout education. That’s Situational Student Voice.
Skill development is best done in the contexts students already occupy. It should respond to the actual individual situations, schools, cultures, and other contexts students currently belong in. In the neighborhood where I grew up it looked like this.
The community I grew up in was primarily a low-income neighborhood that is predominantly African American. When I was 20, I was hired to run an afterschool program for kindergarten through sixth graders by a local nonprofit. It was started a few years earlier by my mom when she was a VISTA, and I was carrying it through. The basic structure was a drop-in time with snacks followed by playtime in a safe, controlled environment stocked with fun activities. Called YoungTime, it was kind of revolutionary in a neighborhood where kids didn’t get to experience childhood in a relaxed, comfortable middle class sense of the experience.
There was no current cultural acceptability for students in our neighborhood to formally teach younger children. Growing up in scouts, I knew this was a successful way to help kids learn. However, I also knew that every older child in my neighborhood was responsible for informally teaching their younger siblings, cousins, and neighbor kids.

Instead of plunking down a train-the-trainer for these older siblings to do the jobs they already did, I chose to first strengthen the position and efficacy of these older children. I wanted to reinforce the roles they already had and acknowledge the skills and abilities they currently brought in the settings they already had them, like home and outside on the block. So I created a period of time when the older students were responsible for teaching the younger kids, not formally, but informally.

In this way I addressed what truly faced them in that moment. The participants’ student voice was reinforced for the purpose of teaching, but not through a false dichotomy or otherwise disrupting the cultural and social norms they already operated within.

I believe its ethically irresponsible for adults in education to propagate our values into other communities without identifying what we can learn from them and learning what they have to teach us. YoungTime was intended to do just that, and so is Situational Student Voice.

What do you think?
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Published by Adam F.C. Fletcher

I'm a speaker and writer who researches, writes and shares about youth, education, and history. Learn more about me at

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