Those who know me, know that student voice is one of my biggest passions in education. And not just any student voice, but including the voice of my students, all students, in the education that is being done to them every day. And yet, when I discuss student voice, many people assume it is just another quaint term for student engagement. The truth is that it is so much more. Student voice means giving students power to change the way education is happening, to offer them an outlet and an audience, to have their voices heard. To change the way I teach.
I fight every day to include my students in their own educational experience. I fight the standards that tell us that yes, students should participate but here is how. I fight the prescribed curriculum that tells us when to stop and discuss and tells us when to keep on moving because there are too many pages to get through in today’s lesson. I fight the traditional way of teaching where the teacher is in locked control, holds all of the power, holds all of the knowledge and decides how and to whom they dispense these precious droplets. I fight because if I don’t fight, my students don’t stand a fighting chance to have their voice heard either.
So every year, I give the classroom back to my students. Every year, I have them blog, and not just what I ask them to write about but whatever they feel like. Then I give them an audience through #comments4kids and Twitter and anybody else who will listen to the voice of these fifth-graders with their grand ideas. I don’t shy away from hard topics; I don’t shy away from criticism. I cannot grow as a teacher if I do not ask my students how I am doing. How do they feel about the education that they are forced to be a part of? I give the classroom back by asking for their ideas, what their path to learning should look like and then actually incorporating that into how we do things. If lessons are boring, we don’t just get through it; we stop, reflect, and then we change it.
I say all this because it is easier than we think. Giving students a voice is not the hard part in education; listening to it is. You have to realize that when students tell you that something is boring, boring may mean that they just don’t understand, boring may mean that they are having a bad day, and yes, boring may mean that it is putting them to sleep. To facilitate a community where students actually have the guts, because it is indeed about guts here, to tell you how they feel about what you are doing — that is the sign of ultimate success in my classroom. Not the grades, not the test scores, but the kid who raises their hand, looks me in the eye and says, “Excuse me, but could we change this, please?”
So how do you start? First, you give them an outlet. Give them a blog. Kidblog can be set up in less than five minutes. Give them a Twitter account to connect them with others. Set up classroom discussion time. Ask them to make the rules of the classroom. When they criticize; listen and change, discuss their ideas and come to meaningful agreements. Your change will give them the confidence that you are not out to get them. After each unit, ask them what they liked, ask them how it should change. At the end of the year, survey them. What was the best and what was the worst. Ask the tough questions and be prepared for the honest answers. Thank them every time they criticize in a meaningful manner. Thank them every time they come up with a suggestion. Sometimes their change is not doable, but oftentimes it is; be open, be aware, and be a learner alongside them. Ask yourself: Would I like being a student in this classroom? If the answer is no, then figure out where to start with your change.
Pernille Ripp is a passionate 5th grade teacher in Middleton, Wis., proud techy geek, and honest to a fault. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. She has no awards or accolades except for the light bulbs that go off in her students’ heads every day. Her first book about giving the classroom back to students is coming out in 2013 from PLPress, but until then she muses on education on her blog “Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension.” Follow her on Twitter@PernilleRipp.