Recently I was contacted to speak at an event on the topic of Student Voice. I have a fundamental belief that one of the most important motivators for students is the ability to have ownership of their work. At an elementary level, this is often represented by an element of choice. Children typically respond better when choosing a book on their own rather than the entire class using the same book. Young writers often enjoy topics that are somewhat personal. As students' interests become more complicated when they grow older however, providing a forum for them to sustain ownership can become more difficult.
In my career, one of the most dynamic and energizing projects that I worked on occurred when I was a middle school teacher. At the school where I worked, we had an 85-minute period at the end of every other day that was essentially a study hall. As a lower-income school, one of the concerns was that some students would not be able to work on homework and projects at home as they were often responsible for younger siblings, preparing meals, and other traditional adult duties. Therefore, students were able to use these 85 minutes to work without distraction.
This study hall, which we called “Forum," was a very important source of relief for many students. They were able to get their work done, collaborate, use the computer lab, and experience many other benefits. For some students however, there was a downside. The students who were performing at a higher level, those that didn’t need catch-up time, were faced with a portion of their day that didn’t offer much advantage. When they were not helping tutor other students or working on a long-term project, many of these higher-performing students transformed from being brilliant and engaged to having a bit of a behavior problem.
From the advanced student’s perspective, it was easy to see why this great program had some drawbacks. They had been engaged all day and typically performed at a high level, but were now required to just stay busy for a substantial period of time. Occasionally during this period, these students would be found in small groups discussing very cool things — but their discussions could become a distraction to the other students. These kids wanted to do something, but they were often being asked to be quiet and keep to themselves.
But then an idea hit me. These students wanted to work on something special, but they needed a very small piece of structure attached to it. Their behavior during Forum may have been distracting, but it was far from being inappropriate. Some of the brightest students in the school were included in that group, and they were being stifled by the structure. What if we gave them a place to do what they were trying to do on their own? What if we allowed them to create their own class?
We started with 14 kids and basically told them to start brainstorming. The ideas began with a focus on small scale, grassroots projects.
The students created their own projects, their own standards, and their own grading rubrics. They would present their projects to the class at the end of the year, but also at the beginning when they first chose what they were going to work on. Their classmates and I challenged them to make sound decisions as well as to set appropriate goals and deadlines, and we held these high performing students to high standards.
The results were incredible. One student remapped the trails at a local park that he was familiar with, taking notes while fishing with his dad on the weekends and creating the maps in class. Another group created a charitable project making jewelry from pop can tops. Others chose to work as tutors for elementary students that needed assistance but couldn’t pay for it.
Even though I am no longer at this school I still stay in touch with many of these students. The journey we took together was one of discovery and it bound them together as a team. Many of them have told me that participating in this class helped prepare them for various future opportunities and helped give them confidence in their organization and presenting skills, as well as building a foundation for teamwork.
Now, as an elementary educator, I look for the small opportunities to bring projects like this into my classroom. My little second graders love sharing things that are special to them and working on projects that pique their interests. While we cannot devote the same amount of time as the middle school students could, we can devote the same amount of passion.
Occasionally, we have a break in the curriculum for a “special day." Many classrooms will do a movie or pajama day or something along those lines. In our class, the students are choosing to present or research the topics that interest them in mini-conferences that we call “ClassCon” (similar to educational conferences that many teachers attend, like EdCamp).
The concept is basically a small group of hands-on or informative 5 to 10 minute sessions on things like hockey, hobbies, movies, or crafts. Students can explain to their classmates the little subtleties found in the topics that they love. At the same time, students can hone their presenting and writing skills while using a subject matter that they are comfortable with, rather than presenting on something that requires a ton of research. They love sharing their genius on topics they are experts in already.
Allowing students to have a voice in the classroom is an important element in helping them prepare for their futures. Some of the most requested employment skills in today’s market are soft skills — teamwork, leadership, collaboration, and decision-making. Getting a head start in the classroom on those skills can help students get a head start on their futures.