June 4 — 11:13 am, 2014

The power of student voice

Teachers often wonder how to engage their students on a more meaningful level with curriculum. It can be a struggle to find the resources and the time to meet curricular goals and bring real world learning into the classroom. Yet when students’ voices are a driving force in the school day, the results can be profound. 

Much of school curricula seeks to educate students on ideas and concepts that, while important, allow students little to no say on how or why that information is being delivered. Incorporating student voice allows students to act as agents of change in their own educational development and in their communities. 

A report by Eric Toshalis and Michael J. Nakkula that explores how student-centered approaches to learning prepare young people for the future asserts: “At its core, student voice is the antithesis of depersonalized, standardized, and homogenized educational experiences because it begins and ends with the thoughts, feelings, visions, and actions of the students themselves. This makes student voice profoundly student centered.” 

Research on student voice also contends that by allowing students to have a meaningful role in the classroom, teachers are better able to understand how students are processing information. With increased knowledge about the way students make sense of information, teachers can make more informed decisions regarding instruction.

Student voice can be defined in many ways, but for Need in Deed, student voice means student-generated ideas, opinions, and initiatives are used in meaningful ways to complete a service-learning project. Each year we train a cohort of 3rd-through-8th-grade teachers in service-learning pedagogy. That pedagogy is rooted in the belief that students’ voices are powerful enough to make meaningful connections to the learning that is happening in their classrooms and their community. 

Our five-stage process encourages teachers to create a community in their classroom where students feel safe and confident enough to share points of pride and areas of concern regarding their community. Then, using the academic skills they are already building in the classroom, teachers help students narrow one social issue to its causes and effects. Ultimately, students decide how and when they will address one of those causes or effects through service.

Accepted teachers are trained in a network setting where they are provided a space to practice service-learning pedagogy, ask questions, and support their peers. Teachers also attend a two-day summer retreat and work with a Need In Deed staff member during the year to help them elicit student voice, make curriculum connections, and identify community resources. 

When students take the lead in the classroom, powerful things can happen. One 3rd-grade teacher whose class chose homelessness said, “Students led the project first-hand throughout. All decisions are made through them. They have grown into leaders, with a voice that has given them a sense of authority in the school community. My once shy and timid 3rd graders are now taking the school community’s hand and asking them to join them in assisting people experiencing homelessness, one by one.”  

It has been Need in Deed’s mission for over 25 years to prepare young people for civic responsibility. That sense of responsibility can be grown and nurtured in our classrooms. When students see themselves as active participants in their learning and their community, there are no limits as to what they can accomplish.

Need in Deed is currently accepting applications for the 2014-2015 cohort. Applications are due by June 6. 

Kyra Atterbury is an associate program director at Need in Deed. 

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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