Hard Lessons In Student Voice

Today I was talking with some program administrators from a state education agency about student voice when one of them brought up doing “fishbowl”-style activities with students and adults. I remembered some hard lessons about student voice, and I want to share one story with with you here.

How long can adults expect to keep student voice bottled up?

When It All Comes Back On You: Hard Lessons in Student Voice

Yammering and going on about how great they felt, the room came to a hush as I began talking. Gathered around me was a group of 10 students who were excited about changing their school, and I couldn’t have been happier.

Two days earlier, I’d asked for nontraditional student leaders to join me as co-facilitators and data evaluators for a student forum at their school. Working with their small, rural school district’s lead school improvement facilitator, we’d secured the school leadership’s verbal commitment to incorporating student perspectives on what needed to change in their school into their formal school improvement plan, the plan mandated by No Child Left Behind and enforced by the state.

This was the seventh school I’d worked with in the SoundOut School Improvement Pilot Project. Partnering with a state education agency, several districts, and a university, with fiscal support from a local foundation, I felt we were ready to address the issues facing incorporating Meaningful Student Involvement in school improvement in a substantive way.

After working out the kinks in a few schools, I thought I’d struck on a relatively easy formula for these Forums. Beginning early in the morning on the first day, I led a teacher’s meeting. During this session I talked to the almost every teacher for the middle and high school students I’d be working with. I shared my early Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement with them, walked them through the process, and took questions. Sharing some initial hesitations, as a group the teachers gave verbal approval for the process ahead.

In the next two hours I facilitated intensive readiness training for the student facilitator/evaluators. Learning about student voice and school improvement, we then reviewed the process ahead. In two days, we’d spend 90 minutes with each grade level in their small school leading a SoundOut Student Voice Forum. In each session we’d brief the participants about school improvement, and then ask them to answer four simple questions:

  • What do you love about learning?
  • What would you change about learning?
  • What do you love about your school? 
  • What would you change about your school?

They answered these in small groups using Mr. Sketch markers and flip chart paper divided into quadrants. Students were encouraged to be frank, honest, and meaningful in what they wrote. There were just few guidelines presented, including one that came from my early morning session with teachers: Focus on characteristics, not characters. I didn’t want to know the teacher’s specific names that students were complaining about; I wanted to know what behaviors the teacher had that were worth complaining about. That also went for specific classrooms, topics, and other identifying features- especially in a small school! The sessions weren’t intended to threaten or target anyone; instead, they were meant to identify the practical concerns of students.

Gathering up nine hours of facilitated responses, the student facilitator/evaluators and I retreated to a room at noon on day two. Spending two and a half hours leading data aggregation with these students, we discovered a variety of hopes and dreams, frustrations and failures at their school. I encouraged the student facilitator/evaluators to identify the trending data, and from that to develop a quick report-out for their peers. They identified the top five answers to each of the questions for each grade level, and shared the overall topic concerns for the whole school. Remember that every student in grades 7-12 participated in the Forums.

Beginning by leading the students in a quick, interactive activity, I turned the floor over to the student facilitator/evalators. They walked through the data, written freshly on flip chart paper for the audience, which included every single student in the school, all the teachers, and the school support staff. After a half hour, they were finished. The audience clapped, some students stood and whooped, and the students were released for the day.

Reconvening the teachers with their principal, I began by handing out in-depth copies of the data sets we’d collected. Almost immediately teachers were disapproving. A physical education teacher said kids shouldn’t be heard, and an older teacher asked something to the effect that students didn’t have anything meaningful to add to their class, so why should they listen to what students have to say about schools. And so on. The principal stepped in to defend the process for a moment when the district superintendent piped up. Essentially, he said that he’d been mislead by the district school improvement facilitator. He was disappointed by the process and the outcomes, and doubted they’d use the data presented. “We can’t trust students with this responsibility.”

It wasn’t long after that I received the most heartbreaking email I’ve ever received. Risking his own mental and emotional safety, a student from the facilitator/evaluator team sent me an email to report of the treatment him and his peers received from the teachers in the week after I’d left. He said that several teachers had said derisive things to their classes, and that more than one had been specifically punished by a teacher for their participation in the facilitator/evaluator team. Reporting back to the superintendent, I received the reply that teachers made their own determinations of how to treat their students, and that while the teachers were disappointed by what was shared with them in my report, nobody had specifically retaliated against students. “That’s what you get for giving students a voice!” he said, and that was the end of our conversation.

Its been a decade since I launched the SoundOut School Improvement Pilot Project. Since the Forum I described above I have worked in hundreds of other schools across the US and Canada. I have worked with student/adult partnership teams, provided thousands of hours of professional development to educators, and consulted dozens of programs doing spectacular work for student voice. However, I’ve never led another SoundOut Student Voice Forum.

Examining the assumptions behind the Forums that led to the breakdown I described here, I have identified a few sticking points. First, I realize that I should have worked harder to assure the district’s investment in the process of engaging students in school improvement. Rather than simply relying on the school improvement facilitator, which was a state-funded position to support this failing district, I should have handled relations with the district and the building directly. I should have worked harder to protest students’ anonymity in order to ensure their safety.

Ultimately, I could have gotten deeper investment from parents. One of the greatest levers that exists in public schools is the lever of democratic control: Public schools are responsible to be responsive to voters. If public schools do not look the way voters do not want them to look, voters are responsible for their condition, and for changing them. I made a map of How Decisions are Made in Schools, and I encourage you to read it.

In the meantime, I have stayed strong and continued to work. Working more deliberately to secure adults’ interest and ability to engage students as partners, I have also strove to engage parents as partners in student voice work. The levers of policy change, procedural transformation, and the transformation of classroom, building-wide, and administrative practices throughout education have been worked for too. These are hard lessons I have had in student voice. I hope you can learn from themand maybe teach me a thing or two, too!

CommonAction is available to train, speak, and share about this topic and many others. Contact me to talk about the possibilities by emailing adam@commonaction.org or calling (360)489-9680.


Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

2 thoughts on “Hard Lessons In Student Voice

  1. Hey Adam. I can see the heartbreak in this. A real mirror to the true issue of student voice… acceptance. I appreciate your courage and your honesty in sharing this.

    While I cannot possibly know all the nuances of what happened and you can’t possibly write them all, what you have said does raise a question or two for me.

    My question is what do you think it was the teachers and the superintendant were experiencing when they saw the information? What wounding, belief systems began to arise that led to such a negative reaction? if you think back to beneath the surface reaction what might possibly have happened?

    Perhaps in that understanding there is an answer as to how to better prepare the field for the seed you/we are all planting.

    Also, it seems there were assumptions made as to how people would perceive this initiative that was just that… assumptions. Is this true?

    It also is sobering for me to read this because it calls me forward in time to when we present our findings and how we could be treated not only nationally but in school after school.

    You are a gifted man and I can’t wait for us to meet soon!!!

    Charles Kouns
    Founding Steward
    Imagining Learning

  2. ANOTHER commenter posted a response on facebook that I’ll repost here without permission:

    It has been very interesting to read this discussion. As a principal of a school that has been engaging in student leadership and voice initiatives for six years at my current school where we have moved from students leading students to students leading learning, it seems to me that many of these initiatives are things ‘being done’ to schools. My view is that you can’t impose generic programs to different schools. How a students voice/leads hip inititiative will develop and work is determined by context. The example given, to me, is fraught with challenges. Students being put in the position of identifying the ‘problems ‘ in a school where the culture is not welcoming of critical feedback makes students vulnerable. Changing teacher attitudes to where they value and welcome feedback takes years. We began with student leadership in the senior years when they took on challenges and demonstrated their capacity. It is a long journey – but the time developing capacity – of teachers and students – is time well spent. We have multiple leadership initiatives and training in every year – with prerequisites of participation to enter the next level of leadership.

    HERE’S what I responded with:

    The example given *was* fraught with challenges, good call! That’s the point I wanted to share in the story, that and the reality that student voice itself is inherently challenging, and while not a rocket science, it does require intention, finesse, and skills to navigate the waters.

    In the story I shared, I never once referred to students addressing “problems” in their schools. When working with students, I never use that language either. I chose to use a plus/delta approach to engage students in substantive conversations focused on school improvement. In my preliminary research that approach was shown to net a far more significant data set relevant to broad school improvement efforts, rather than limiting them to an assets-based approach, which denies the authenticity of students’ perspectives about schools.

    About the culture of the school, I would suggest that we’re on the absolute same boat, but looking at the water from different perspectives. I was acting in the role of a partner organization hired by the state education agency to assist schools in integrating student voice into their school improvement planning processes. While the plans were mandated by federal law, student voice was not, and these schools had to opt-in to participate, which this one did, in addition to 20 others. This is the only site where I ran into substantial barriers such as the ones I detailed in my post.

    I agree with you that deep culture change is necessary to foster sustainable meaningful student involvement. However, in this instance I was looking to merely inject student voice into a standing order in hopes of inspiring further investment by the school so they could develop their own agenda for the future. I readily admit that rather than inspiring them to go further, they went backwards.

    The point of sharing such a story is to help ensure that other practitioners don’t make the same mistakes I did. Given that I was trying to make the best out of a compromised position, I failed. I get that. Congrats to you for being in a situation where you could do it right.

    I take heart that since that incident happened a decade ago, I haven’t taken the same approach again, instead opting for professional development, building level consultation and coaching, and curricular approaches to engaging students as partners in schools. I learned a lot at these students’ expenses.

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